Starting up an expansion team is no small feat at the best of times. Throw in a global pandemic that has drastically altered sports leagues worldwide and you’ve got an even bigger challenge.
True to their name, the Yokohama Grits of the Asia League are determined to make it happen.
Beginning in the fall of 2020, the Grits are set to become the eighth team in the Asia League Ice Hockey joining four other teams from Japan, two from South Korea and one from Russia.
It’s a huge step as the league looks to tap into the lucrative market of one of the world’s most populous urban areas. Yokohama has a population of 3.7 million and, along with neighboring Kawasaki and Tokyo, is part of a metropolitan area that is home to 38 million people.
The Greater Tokyo area hasn’t had a professional ice hockey team since 2009 when the Seibu Prince Rabbits of the Asia League folded.
The Grits were founded in April of 2020 by the Grits Sports Innovators Corporation. Akihito Usui, CEO of IT start-up Cmapper. an app and website design and development company founded in 2013, is the driving force behind the team.
Usui was born in the hockey hotbed of Sapporo and started skating when he was just three years old. He was captain of both his high school and university hockey teams.
While he dreamed of being a professional hockey player, Usui went on to a successful business career that started at major Japanese trading company Itochu Corporation.
“For a kid who was born in Hokkaido, my youth was all about ice hockey,” Usui said. “My dream was to play in the pro league in Japan, but soon I faced the reality that it is hard to make a living just by playing ice hockey in Japan.”
While it lags far behind baseball and soccer in terms of popularity, ice hockey does have a passionate following in Japan.
The Japan Ice Hockey Championships have been contested since 1933. The Japan Ice Hockey League was the national league from 1966 to 2004.
Perhaps the pinnacle of ice hockey in Japan came when the country hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
With a team coached by Canadian Dave King, Japan inspired the home crowd by beating Austria 4-3 in a consolation round game played before almost 10,000 spectators at the Big Hat Ice Arena.
Yokohama could very well be the perfect city in which to base a team. While Asia League games have been played there before, the Grits will be the first ice hockey team based in Yokohama.
Yokohama has a fine sporting culture with fans known for their loyal support. The Yokohama BayStars are one of the best-supported teams in Japanese professional baseball as are the Yokohama F Marinos of J-League soccer.
“We hope to make a great impact on the Japanese hockey market,” said Grits player Naoto Hamashima. “Yokohama has great potential to be a huge sports town.”
The team will be coached by former NHLer Mike Kennedy who played 145 games with the Dallas Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. The 48-year-old Kennedy has also played in Germany for the Munich Barons and Adler Mannheim and in Sweden for Leksands IF. Kennedy has over 14 years experience as a coach including with the University of Calgary men’s hockey team.
The Asia League Ice Hockey was formed in 2003 due to the struggles of the Japan Ice Hockey League and the folding of the Korean Ice Hockey League. The league initially was comprised of five teams in two countries and has had as many as nine.
The league draws most of its players from the home countries of its teams but allows each team to have a quota of foreign imports. Some of the more prominent names to play in the league over the years include former NHLers Esa Tikkanen, Claude Lemieux and Shion Podien.
After being shut down for most of April and May, the Japanese sporting world is slowly coming back to life. Japanese domestic baseball and soccer started playing games with no spectators in June and a limited number of fans will be allowed in mid-July.
As an international league, the Asia League Ice Hockey could face some significant hurdles as it looks to start the 2020 season on time.
The Japanese government has imposed strict restrictions on travel. Japan currently has an entry ban in place for 111 countries and regions including both Russia and South Korea.
Whether the entry ban will be lifted in time for the start of the season is uncertain. The Asia League is taking a cautious approach and has yet to announce its schedule for the upcoming season but the Grits are hard at work on the assumption that games will go ahead.
“(The coronavirus) has been a big challenge for us,” said Hamashima. “However, the culture of the Grits has made us accept the reality and we took it in a positive way and moved forward.”