Japan on ice: Hockey in the Far East

While Toronto hosts the World Cup of Hockey this fall, another contest will be taking place across the Pacific….

On September 10, the puck will drop in Hachinohe and the 14th season of the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH) will have had its Japanese home opener. The ALIH, the top professional league in Asia, was founded in 2003 in order to replace the Japan Ice Hockey League, which was having financial trouble, and the Korea Ice Hockey League, which had folded. Currently, the league has nine teams. Four of those teams are based in Japan with the rest of the league being spread out across South Korea, China and Russia. Since the inception of the ALIH the Japanese teams have dominated the league, winning or sharing the title in all but two seasons. The Nippon Paper Cranes have been the team to beat as they have won four ALIH championships. However, hockey in Japan is much more than what goes on in their top pro league.

While Japanese hockey is not well-known by the rest of the world, and is actually often overlooked by the media within Japan, hockey has been played in an organized fashion in Japan since at least the 1920s. Indeed, one team in the ALIH, the Oji Eagles, was actually founded in 1925. However, this hockey tradition has not yet led to a high degree of popularity for the sport. The average attendance for an ALIH game is just under 1,000 people. While hockey lags in attendance behind baseball, soccer and the martial arts, it is slowly but surely winning converts. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, Japan has over 19,000 registered hockey players, which places it as the country with the ninth-most hockey players in the world (more than countries like Denmark, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Slovakia). However, this participation has not yet led to success for the Japanese national team.

The Japanese national men’s hockey team have a long tradition as they played in their first world championship in 1930, where they finished sixth. That, unfortunately, has been their high water mark. They last played in the Olympics in 1998, where they finished 13th, and have not played at the World Championships since 2004. Currently, the Japanese men’s team is ranked as the 20th-best team in the world. They have performed much better at the Asian Winter Games where they have won gold medals in two out of the last three tournaments and have never finished lower than second in the history of the event.

The Japanese national women’s hockey team, like the Japanese national women’s soccer team, have outperformed their male counterparts. “Smile Japan,” as the women’s team is nicknamed, finished eighth at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and finished eighth again at the 2016 World Championships. These quality performances have led the Japanese women’s team to a current world ranking of seventh, which is their highest ranking to date. Interestingly, though Smile Japan have consistently performed well on the world stage they have yet to win a gold medal at the Asian Games, ending each of the last five tournaments with a second-place finish.

With high hockey participation rates, it is expected that the quality of Japanese players, and the popularity of the sport overall, will rise in coming years. Already, players like Ryo Hashimoto are seeing time at NHL training camps and 12-year-old Aito Iguchi is being lauded as a future NHLer. In a few years’ time the Land of the Rising Sun might just see the dawn break on a bright hockey scene.

The first and the only 

Though Japan’s future looks bright in terms of NHL prospects, to date, goalie Yutaka Fukufuji is the only Japanese citizen to play in the NHL (Ryan O’Marra, though born in Tokyo, never pursued Japanese citizenship). Fukufuji played in the Japan Ice Hockey League before being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2004, becoming only the second Japanese player ever drafted by the NHL (the first being Hiroyuki Miura in 1992).

After being drafted, Fukufuji toiled in the North American minor leagues for nearly three seasons before he was called up to the NHL during the 2006–2007 season. He played four games for the Los Angeles Kings that year, his only games in the NHL, and has since played in the Netherlands and Denmark. He currently plies his trade for the Nikko Icebucks in the Asia League.

D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.