Japan's trailblazer
by Andy Potts|28 APR 2022
Japanese forward Yushiroh Hirano is hoping that his AHL experience can help to boost the sport in his homeland.
photo: Michal Chwieduk
From Abbotsford to Tychy, Japanese forward Yushiroh Hirano has been tormenting goalies this season. 

Back in January, not long after signing a PTO with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the 26-year-old from Hokkaido made history as the first Japanese-born player to score in that league. It took a mere 10 seconds of his first start with Abbotsford for Hirano to dispatch a rocket of a shot into the San Diego Gulls’ net and write a little piece of hockey history.

That followed an impressive spell in Cincinnati, with 29 (16+13) points in 25 ECHL games, building on two pre-pandemic seasons of heavy scoring in the same league with Wheeling Nailers.

Subsequent performances in British Columbia helped Hirano to a top-six spot as the Canucks jockeyed for a play-off seeding – but when Team Japan came calling, there was no doubt that boosting hockey at home was more important than chasing personal ambitions in North America.

Hirano, who wears the ‘A’ on this Japan team in Tychy, began his World Championship Division IB campaign with a hat-trick on Serbia. But his bigger mission is to share his experience on a roster where most players have little experience of hockey outside of Japan.

“It’s fantastic to be a part of the Vancouver Canucks organisation,” Hirano said after that opening game. “They’ve given me so much and I’m learning all the time.

“But now I hope I can bring back some of what I’ve learned to help Team Japan.”

Hirano’s path to the AHL has not been straightforward. High school hockey in Japan earned call-ups to the national U18 and U20 teams, but was never going to move the dial in terms of draft interest. A season in the Swedish Junior League with Tingsryds was a valuable step up, and Hirano showed his progress on the international stage. As captain of Japan’s juniors, he was third in scoring at the Division IB tournament in 2015; the top scorer at that event was Kazakhstan’s Nikita Mikhailis, who has gone on to impress at the 2021 World Championship and scored 44 points in 47 KHL games last season. Hirano also made his senior international debut and earned his first look at North American hockey when he joined Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL in 2015/16.

His first season with the Phantoms was a success, but injury halted the journey.

“A few years ago I got injured and I had to come back to Japan again,” he said of his return to the Asia League’s Tohoku Free Blades. “After that I went to Sweden, and helped to win promotion with Kalmar. Now I’ve got a second chance to play in North America.

“It means a lot for me, and I hope I can do well and create opportunities for more Japanese players to play over there.”

To date, only one Japanese-born player has dressed in the NHL. Goalie Yutaka Fukufuji, now 39 and also on the roster in Tychy, played four games with the LA Kings in 2011. Does Hirano have a shot at matching that achievement?

According to his coach in Cincinnati, Jason Payne, some of the attributes are in place. “[Hirano] has an NHL-calibre shot, hands down,” Payne told NHL.com. “With that shot, he just needs a split second to find an opening.” The player himself sees his AHL performances as another step closer to the dream and hopes that his long journey can bring him to a new summit in his career.

Before that, though, he hopes to bring Japan back to Division IA. In 2016, he was part of the team that suffered relegation; since then he’s won bronze and silver in IB. Now, despite the pause enforced on Japanese hockey by the pandemic – the Asia League has not played since early 2020 and Team Japan last contested Olympic qualification in Feb. 2020 – he hopes that the team can complete the set with gold in Poland.

“It’s been so hard getting the team back together after such a long break,” Hirano said. “We didn’t have long at camp, and there was a lot to do.

“But the good thing is that the Japanese hockey program isn’t so big. Everybody knows each other. So we could spend time focussing on our goals and making sure we are ready.”