Japan U18s aim to surprise
by Derek O'Brien|22 APR 2023
photo: © JIHF Photo, Nagayama
Last season, Japan got a rather rude reception in Division I Group A of the IIHF U18 World Championship – where it was competing for the first time since 2012 – by losing five straight games, getting outscored 27-8. Since no team was relegated, the Japanese will get another shot at the second-highest tier this year in Angers, France and believe they will be much better prepared for the level of opposition they’ll be facing.
“It was definitely disappointing for us but we learned a lot from last year,” said forward Teito Ishigaki, one of a whopping 11 players from last year’s squad that’s eligible to return. “This year, I don’t know if we can go to the top division, but I think we can climb up in the division and stay in IA.”
Japan is taking serious strides to prepare its squad for the tournament this year, and in February travelled to Poprad, Slovakia to take part in the annual Vladimir Dzurilla Memorial Tournament. The other three teams – Germany, Switzerland and host Slovakia – are all top-division clubs and the Japanese turned a lot of heads with how well they competed.
Their tournament began with a stunner: a 2-1 shootout victory over Germany. That was followed by very respectable 3-0 and 4-2 defeats to the Slovaks and Swiss.
“I was really surprised by the Japanese,” said Swiss head coach Marcel Jenni. “They’re a really structured team, they work hard and it was quite the challenge to play them.”
“They’re a very quick team and I think they surprised every team in this tournament,” German coach Alexander Duck said after the tournament was over.
“Germany’s in the top division, so we expected them to be really good strategy-wise and skill-wise also, but we played hard through the game,” said Ishigaki. “I think we did a good job being quick on the transition, the breakout, the regroup, and that’s the reason we won.”
Against Slovakia, he figured: “I think we had a great start, but the turnovers came from not being quick enough in those areas. Those are the small details that we were missing. We played hard through the game but it wasn’t enough.”
This wasn’t the first time Ishigaki and some of his teammates had faced the Slovaks on their home ice. At last year’s Divsion I Group A tournament in Piestany, Slovakia beat the Japanese team 8-2, outshooting them 53-15.
“I felt that this year we were more confident with the puck and we were able to make plays,” he said. “Last year, we had never played a team of that calibre so we didn’t know how fast and hard the play would be. This year, we’re a little bit better, a little more comfortable with the level of play and I think it’s showing.”
Overall, he said: “It was definitely a big experience. Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity so it’s great to play against these kinds of teams. Knowing how hard they play and how fast they are is something we can take with us into the upcoming Division IA World Championship.”

  Chasing the American dream

Ishigaki is one of two players on the Japanese U18 national team who plays in North America – the other is another returning player, Tai Ushio, who led the team in scoring last year with four points in five games. Like Ushio, Ishigaki’s time there stems from getting noticed at a youth tournament.
“I went to an international tournament in New York when I was 12 and I got to watch an Islanders game,” Ishigaki described. “It was definitely impressive and it made me want to go to the US and get some exposure there – give myself the opportunity to be seen by scouts.”
Starting at the age of 14, Ishigaki attended the Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockland, Ontario. It was a tough adjustment at first.
“My teammates were all nice to me but I couldn’t speak English at all, so it was tough at first,” he said in fluent English, adding: “I’m still learning.”
He spent two years at the CIHA, although: “The second year was the COVID year so we didn’t play a single league game. Last year I went to the US and the New Jersey Titans and this year I played for the Utica Junior Comets.”
Ishigaki has nothing but positive things to say about Utica, New York: “It’s about four hours from New York City and it’s a smaller city but it’s got an AHL team, so it’s a great hockey town.”
Playing four years in Canada and the USA have had a big affect on Ishigaki’s style of play, which has helped him when he represents Japan internationally.
“Players over there are bigger,” he said about North Americans. “You can see that Japanese players aren’t so big but we try to use our speed but now, from playing over there, I definitely play more physical and hit more. I’ve also gotten faster and I’m shooting more – I think that’s another part of my game that’s improved.”
Looking beyond this season and his last U18 World Championship, Ishigaki still has two more years of junior hockey eligibility. He has goals for those seasons and beyond and, for now, he thinks he’ll be staying in North America.
“I’m playing junior right now and I’d like to move up to tier II or tier I league for next season,” he said. “Eventually, college hockey is my goal and then professional hockey.
“It’s not easy but playing in the United States is special to me. So is playing here in Europe against top teams. It kind of shows people that a Japanese player can play in these places.”