SAPPORO – While Japan has never been an international hockey superpower, many people would be surprised to learn that the country’s history with the sport goes back nearly as far as that in many European countries.
An IIHF member nation since 1930, the earliest known hockey program in the Land of the Rising Sun was formed in 1906, while the Japan Ice Hockey Federation was founded in 1929.
Hockey has always been a minor sport on Japan’s main island of Honshu and its southerly island of Kyushu. Although many of the sport’s strategies and traditions seem tailor-made to be adapted to the country’s culture and bushido (way of the warrior) heritage, ice hockey trails far behind sumo, baseball, football, golf, and combat sports on the popularity and participation scale.
The big exception, both historically and currently, is Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. Known for its frigid and snowy winters with an average January temperature ranging from -12 to -4 °C (10.4 to 24.8 °F), ice hockey has been a popular winter time activity on the island for many decades.
Although Hokkaido’s population represents just 4.3 percent of the total Japanese population, the nation’s ice hockey participation ranks are typically dominated by men, women and youths who hail from the island or received their hockey training there.
According to the latest statistics recently provided by Toshi Takahasi of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation, there are 185 registered teams and 4,306 registered players on Hokkaido. There are 660 teams and 14,061 players on Honshu, which has a population of 101 million people compared to 5.5 million on Hokkaido. Nevertheless, Hokkaido is the home of the country’s top players. Historically, well over 90 percent of the national men’s team rosters – and 100 percent of its most recent roster – were born and/or trained on Hokkaido.
“Hockey and skating in general is obviously a much more popular sport on Hokkaido,” said Hockey Lab Japan founder Hiroki Wakabayashi, who is now a USA Hockey coach. “They have skating classes in physical education curriculums from elementary school.”
“I only run few hockey clinics in Japan since I moved to the USA for coaching hockey, but I used to run many hockey and goalie clinics for all age groups from mites to college players in Japan. The level of player varied, but the good youth hockey players in Japan could compete in AAA/AA hockey in North America for sure. The high-profile players in Japan, mostly from Hokkaido, tend to stay and play in the domestic leagues. Thus, they just don't have many opportunities to train and compete – and be seen – in higher competitions so they
don't really get to where it takes to step into global hockey arenas.”
Tomakomai and Kushiro are arguably the two best hockey towns on Hokkaido and they are the home to two Asia League pro teams, the Oji Eagles in Tomakomai and the Nippon Paper Cranes in Kushiro. On Honshu, the only significant pockets of hockey popularity are in Hachinohe in the northern end of the mainland and in Nikko, northeast of Tokyo.
“There is a great traditional rivalry between the teams in Tomakomai and Kushiro,” said Wakabayashi. “I’d compare the rivalry in those cities to some of the better traditional college hockey rivalries in the U.S., such as University of Michigan versus University of Minnesota.”
The modern day Oji Eagles club (formerly Oji Paper) has its roots in 1925. Prior to the creation of the Asia League, it had won 47 championships between the All-Japan championship and the former Japan Hockey League. Their home base, the port city of Tomakomai, is located in the southern part of the island of Hokkaido.
The Nippon Paper Cranes call the eastern Hokkaido city of Kushiro home. The club was founded in 1949 for factory workers at the Jujo Paper Company. In addition to the pulp and paper industry, the city is known for its fisheries and mines. The Jujo team eventually joined the Japan Hockey League in 1974-75. The club became known by its current name after Nippon Paper bought out Jujo Paper in 1993.
Even on Hokkaido, recruiting the very best athletes to choose hockey over other sports can be difficult. On the big island of Honshu, few youngsters aspire to play hockey because their exposure to the game is limited relative to baseball and other sports. On Hokkaido, the pull of other sports is also felt, but so is the comparative expense of the equipment and the relative obscurity of Japanese hockey players compared to other athletes.
That is why the journey of Yutaka Fukufuji from Kushiro to the NHL and the Japanese national team has been a boon to hockey in Hokkaido. Despite the briefness and relatively modest success of his professional career in North America, the mere fact that a local product could make it all the way from Japanese hockey to the world’s most famous league has inspired many others (especially aspiring young goaltenders) to follow their dreams.
Similarly, hockey participation in Hokkaido saw a jump in the early 1970s after the 1972 Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo. The Sapporo Games featured an outstanding hockey tournament in which the Japanese team more than held its own in the consolation round against the likes of Switzerland (3-3 tie) and West Germany (7-6 victory). Following the Olympics, hockey registrations on Hokkaido experienced a short boom period, which lasted until the mid-1970s.
One of the many youngsters from Hokkaido who got his first hockey exposure in that decade was Kushiro native Hiroyuki Miura. A star defenceman in his homeland and for the Japanese national team, Miura became the first Japanese player to be selected in the NHL’s Entry Draft, earning an 11th round selection by the Montreal Canadiens in 1992. Although he only spent one season in North America and played it in the second-tier minor league ECHL, Miura remained active in the Japanese leagues until 2009 and experienced the thrill of representing his homeland in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
Elsewhere in the hockey world, people have slowly come to the realization that there is further development potential in Japanese hockey, building on the foundation that is already in place on Hokkaido in particular.
“The Japanese players are a pleasure to work with, hard-working, respectful, brave, resourceful and eager to learn,” former NHL coach Dave King told the Toronto Star during his stint as the Japanese national team’s general manager in 1998. “There’s room to grow. Having players such [now-retired Japanese-Canadian star] Paul Kariya to look up is a great thing, and having some Japanese players make it overseas would be even bigger. There may not be a lot of hockey in Japan, but the people who get into it really know it and have the passion that it takes.”
Fourteen years after the Nagano Olympics, with its first-time participation by the NHL, Japanese hockey still remains largely confined to its stronghold on Hokkaido. But that does not mean there has been no progress, both on the northern island and the mainland.
Tokyo will play host to the IIHF General Congress next September, while the Japanese women’s national team has made huge strides over the last decade, and the men’s team is solidly entrenched at the Division I level and are slated to participate at 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Ljubljana, Slovenia in April.
The Hokkaido-dominated team will be part of a tough field that includes the host team, Austria, Ukraine, Hungary and Great Britain.
Japan may be hard pressed to finish higher than third or fourth in Slovenia and earn promotion to the elite nations, but one thing is for certain. There will be thousands of players, coaches and fans in Japan’s northernmost island watching the results from afar with great interest.