FUSSEN, Germany – Hockey preseason. It’s the time of year that you see relaxed coaches behind the bench, and you can watch Russian teams playing in Switzerland, Swedes in Finland, or Austrian teams in Germany. However, Southern Germany has a more exotic guest this summer.
The Japanese champion Seibu Prince Rabbits from Tokyo is touring the Southern part of Germany before its season opener against the Nikko Ice Bucks on September 20th.
The team, formerly known as Kokudo, is the most successful hockey club in Asia. They won the 2003-founded Asian League twice and have a record 23 Japanese championship titles. Seibu is the defending champion in Japan, but lost the semi-final series of the Asian League last spring.
The club, which is named after the hotel and transportation group Seibu and its Prince Hotels, travelled to Germany for a two-week training camp in Fussen, a traditional hockey town in Bavaria. The arena is often used by various German national teams and is also the venue of the 2009 IIHF World Women's U18 Championship.
The trip started with an exhibition game against EHC Munchen. “It’s a good test for us as the Japanese skate on a top level,” said EHC Munchen coach Pat Cortina, who was also the Hungarian national team coach last season and won the 2008 World Championship Division I group in Sapporo, Japan.
Ultimately, the Rabbits were not fast enough as Munich won 3-0. The next day, they faced host, EV Fussen, also from the second-tier Bundesliga, losing 9-4.
It was not a good start as the next opponent was ERC Ingolstadt from Germany’s top league DEL. But the tide changed as Takahito Suzuki, the national team captain, scored twice and the Japanese also took the lead in the shootout. The Rabbits lost the game after eight penalty shots, but it was still a moral win for the squad. After the game, one German headline read “a friendly embarrassment for Ingolstadt”.
The team’s goal is to win both the Asian and the Japanese titles – anything less is not acceptable. Like last year, the top four teams from Japan, two Korean and a Chinese team will participate in the Asian League. Beside the Japanese-born players, the Rabbits came to Germany with two imports.
One of them is Joel Prpic, 33, a former NHL centre who came to Tokyo in 2002. The other is also Canadian: Richard Rochefort, 31, who joined Seibu last year after seasons as a journeyman through Europe and North America.
This week, the team will play another game against a DEL team, the Augsburger Panthers. The camp will close with two more games against second-tier teams Ravensburg, Kaufbeuren.
It’s not the first time an Asian League team is practising in Europe as the Korean team High1 Chuncheon went to Finland last year, finishing with a 3-2 record against second- and third-tier teams.
The camp was arranged by Mark Mahon, a Canadian-born coach of the Japanese national team. “It will be a great experience for Seibu and hopefully be something we can continue to do every year,” said Mahon, who played in Germany for ten years. He contacted the arena in Fussen for the camp – which is quickly becoming used to the sight of Japanese teams as the women’s national team had a camp there last year and this season, the men’s and U20 national team will follow.
The Japanese like their temporary base. “They’re often taking a bath in the lakes and visited the Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most famous sights in Germany,” says Margot Hanig, the manager of the arena.
Next weekend, they will visit Munich and watch a game of the famous football team Bayern Munchen before heading back to the land of the rising sun.