Category: Asia (Page 1 of 16)

Hockey night in New Zealand. A.J. Spiller growing the Canadian game in Southern Hemisphere

William Levien, Johann Kwok, A.J. Spiller, Mason Beetham, Corey Marsh

By: Mike Sawatzky – Winnipeg Free Press

On the surface, it seems like an unlikely career path.

Seven years ago, A.J. Spiller moved from Canada to New Zealand to play fastball during the sub-tropical summer. He repeated the trip the next year and again the year after that. But at some point, those trips to the Southern Hemisphere became something more than fufilling his sense of adventure.

Spiller fell in love — he and partner Monique Whareumu met that first summer — and he ended up staying to play and manage grassroots hockey in New Zealand’s biggest city — Auckland.

“When I moved here (permanently) I played one more season and then I started to play hockey and then I kind of chose hockey over fastball after that,” says Spiller, previously a third baseman for the Portage Phillies and a defenceman for the MJHL’s Terriers from 2003 to 2008.

“I enjoyed it a lot. It was just when it got into playing both — I did that for one year — and it was too much to play both hockey and fastball and I went back to university, too. So there was a lot on the go and I kind of decided to pick one over the other.”

Spiller’s academic work dovetailed nicely into his professional life. He enrolled at the University of Auckland to pursue a bachelor of commerce degree in management and marketing, completing it in 2019.

During that time, the 33-year-old interned with the Auckland Ice Hockey Association before taking over as the organization’s general manager 18 months ago. The job with AIHA, which has 800 members including 700 players, requires a healthy amount of multi-tasking. It’s something he may have developed an instinct for since playing for his dad, Blake, the longtime GM and head coach of the Terriers.

“I tie skates, fill water bottles and I kind of run the business side of Auckland Ice Hockey Association and I coach as well,” says A.J.

One of Spiller’s main tasks is to grow the game in a country, which joined the IIHF in 1977 but has just seven indoor rinks, two outdoor rinks and 1,700 players draw from a population of approximately 4.9 million residents.

“We’re definitely trying to grow the game,” he says. “Our big focus right now is on the grassroots and making it you know, as as fun and as accessible as we can for kids. Because that’s really the lifeblood of the sport. If we don’t have a good grassroots program, and nothing else is going to come out of it.”

Competing for attention with the country’s national sport, rugby, hasn’t been easy. Hockey’s March to November season also goes head to head with rugby’s premier team, the All Blacks.

A.J. Spiller at practice with youth player in Auckland, N.Z.

“It’s a little bit of a tough sell in that we play at the same time as rugby does as well — we’re both winter sports,” says Spiller. “Obviously, rugby is gonna draw a lot of people there but we are kind of similar sports. So we try to use that as well.

“We actually had two kids last year, their dad was a video coach for the All Blacks… and the both of them came to play ice hockey. And he came to check it out because he was a rugby guy and he just wanted to make sure that it was good. And he really enjoyed it.”

The country’s top men’s league, the New Zealand Ice Hockey League, has a number of import players making it possible to raise the calibre of play. Spiller took last season off to concentrate on his duties but he’ll return to the ice this year in the NZIHL, which he says is similar in calibre to the senior South Eastern Manitoba Hockey League.

New Zealand sent men’s and women’s teams to the most recent world championships, competing at Division 2, Group B level. But Spiller says the gap in skill level between import players and the bottom of NZIHL rosters is substantial.

“That’s kind of what we’re focused on right now is how can we make that bottom end a little bit better?” says Spiller. “And how can we give more Kiwi players a better chance to play in that league. I’m also coaching the under-18 national team here as well. That’s kind of in line with that, too, is how can we get more of these players playing and playing significant roles so that our national teams get better?”

On a brighter note, New Zealand’s success in limiting the impact of COVID-19 has allowed sports to continue. In 2020, the hockey season had a few stops and starts before eventually finishing as scheduled.

In 2021, it’s been mostly business as usual. Masks are still required on public transit in Auckland and airplanes but grocery shopping, for instance, can go on without masks, providing you adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“As far as the response to COVID, to keep it out and to manage it for the last little while has been pretty impressive when you look at the rest of the world,” says Spiller.

Living without snow or the deep freeze of his home province is nice, too. Auckland enjoyed 17C Wednesday and rarely goes below 8C during the cooler months of April to September.

“I like Canada and I like the winter but I kind of enjoy it here as well,” says Spiller. “It wasn’t a hard sell to come here.”

Puck dreams: Iran’s women hockey stars plan to make their mark on ice

Maral Rasekhi was a key figure in Iran’s 2018 success in South Korea

By Mohammad Hashemi – Middle East Eye

The national inline hockey squad defied expectations with a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Roller Sports Championship in South Korea. Now they want to replicate that success in ice hockey.

On a chilly day in early January, two dozen female ice hockey players train at Iran’s only standard-sized ice rink, in Tehran’s northwestern outskirts.

A team of judges, including assistant coach Azam Sanaei, watch attentively as players perform on the rink, competing for a spot in the first Iranian women’s national ice hockey squad.

The hopefuls are in their twenties and thirties and count among their number some of the country’s best athletes on ice.

Nevertheless, the standards they must meet are stringent, with physical fitness tests designed to filter out all but the elite.

“We’ve never seen everyone so filled with passion and enthusiasm during training before,” says Sanaei, 31, who also serves as the captain of the team. On offer is a spot in the squad that will compete in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Challenge Cup of Asia, which was scheduled to be held in the Philippines in May but has been postponed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.



Onlookers watch on as hopefuls shuttle up and down the 60-metre-long rink, trying to make the required six lengths within a standard time, some crashing into the billboards enclosing the rink in exhaustion. Teammates on the sides shout and bang their hockey sticks on the ice in support.

The squad will eventually be made up of 20 players, of whom six have already been chosen. In competitive matches, six players from the team take to the rink, including a goaltender, two defensive players and three forwards.

Members of the Iranian women’s ice hockey team pose with hopefuls trying to make the cut

For those who make the cut, the struggle has just begun. For all their efforts on the ice, women’s ice hockey remains a sport that has yet to make an impact among everyday Iranians and sponsors, whether the state or private backers, are in short supply.

Iran only joined the International Ice Hockey Federation as an associate member in 2019, more than a century after the sporting body was established, and only after the opening of Tehran’s privately owned ice rink.

According to the IIHF, there are 103 female ice hockey players in Iran, just slightly more than the 100 male players on its books.

Transitioning from inline hockey

Many on the women’s team first cut their teeth in Iran’s inline hockey scene, including their captain Sanaei, who transitioned to ice hockey after starting in competitive inline hockey in 2005. She says that despite this change in environment, the team is showing glimmers of hope on ice.

“The pace of improvement in our training is very promising in light of the fact that ice hockey is totally new to us,” says Sanaei, who is also studying for an MBA at Tehran University.



Inline hockey, unlike ice hockey, is played on hard surfaces instead of an ice rink, and ice skates are replaced by inline skates. The two sports are otherwise similar, with minor differences in regulations.

The players come from across Iran and have different class backgrounds, but most face a shared struggle in trying to win recognition from their families and wider society.

A case in point is 26-year-old Negar Arjmand, who joined Iran’s women inline hockey national team in 2015, later participating in tournaments in South Korea and Italy as a defensive player.

A physical education graduate, Arjmand teaches skating to make ends meet and fund her hockey career. She has even set her eyes on emulating her hero, Russian NHL star Alexander Ovechkin, by attracting the attention of foreign clubs.

Negar Arjmand’s family initially had reservations about her choice of sport but have since come around to the idea

Arjmand’s parents, both accomplished artists, suffer from polio, and her father especially was opposed to her choice of sport. He saw little in the way of financial remuneration and, perhaps due to his own physical condition, feared hockey would result in permanent injury for his daughter. There was also the issue of marriage and the concern that the sport would distract Arjmand from starting a family.

It was her performances, and a third-place finish in inline hockey at the 2018 Asian Games in South Korea in particular, that calmed the tensions and earned her family’s approval, as well that of the rest of the country, eventually.

“My parents were not in favour of this sport. Still, they didn’t want to prevent me from pursuing my interests,” Arjmand says.

“I think in their heart they saw me as an active person who could do extraordinary things. I believe that gave me the strength to continue.”



Asian Roller Championships

Maral Rasekhi, the team’s most senior player, says the team’s performances in South Korea in 2018 were a turning point.

The team went in as rank underdogs, but came out with a reputation as giant-killers, ending the tournament with a bronze medal.

Iran’s third-place finish at the 2018 Asian Roller Championships included a 4-2 upset win over hosts South Korea

“Our third game was against South Korea, the host nation, and a team we thought were invincible,” Rasekhi says. “They had come to the rink with the sole purpose of thrashing us but we beat them four goals to two.”

She calls the moment “an extraordinary feat that became an over-the-moon moment”.

Rasekhi began skating at the age of seven and overcame personal tragedy in the form of her father’s death when she was 10 to become a professional inline hockey player aged 19, making history as the first Iranian woman to play for a foreign club, in Hong Kong.

She credits her mother’s and sister’s support for her success, as well as the mentorship of Kaveh Sedghi, the head coach of both the male and female national inline hockey teams – someone the players credit with doing more for the sport in Iran than any other person.

The culmination of those efforts was the 2018 Asian Games, where as well as the women’s bronze medal, the Iranian men’s team took home the gold.



‘National pride’

The response in Iran on the team’s return following the performance was modest. Heads only began to turn after the release of a documentary two years later about the squad’s exploits in South Korea by filmmaker Sam Kalantari, called No Place for Angels.

Following the release, Iran’s female hockey stars became a source of pride for the country, drawing celebrity endorsements, including from actors such as Niki Karimi, Roya Nonahali and Behnaz Jafari, in addition to exuberant local media coverage.

Kalantari follows the players and their coaching staff, including their much-loved French coach Marina Fagoaga Jalinier, as they attempt to raise enough money to get to the tournament, and their eventual run to the semi-finals.

Captain Azam Sanaei says: “The main message of this documentary for women is to not give up hope in the face of obstacles.”

Azam Sanaei briefs players trying to join the Iranian women’s hockey team in September 2020

In one scene, Sanaei talks about how hockey has become a symbol of independence for the women on the squad.

“From early childhood, it was really important for me that no one would tell me that I could not do something because I was a girl,” she says.

“I don’t need somebody to stand behind me to be successful. Instead, I believe not only in not relying on anybody else but also in lending my support to other people, allowing them to rely on me.”



Continuing struggle

Neither the film nor the team’s performance in 2018 changed the fact that major obstacles remain when it comes to women’s participation in sport in Iran.

Of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index for 2020, Iran ranks 148th. The state has barred female spectators from watching live sports in stadiums for around four decades, competitors must cover their hair during sporting events even outside of Iran and TV channels do not broadcast sports featuring female participants. Additionally, issues such as women riding bicycles continue to court controversy, and athletes are among other personalities defecting from the country over its dress requirements, as well as other policies.

Nevertheless, Sanaei is keen to caution against painting a bleak picture of the situation when it comes to hockey.

“I believe our problems have nothing to do with our gender, at least in our field of sport. Others in different countries might have the same problems,” she says.

“In my opinion, if we are determined to reach our goals we could remove any barrier. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

Neither can responsibility for all the obstacles Iran’s athletes face be placed at the feet of the Iranian authorities.

Sanctions reinstated on Iran by the Trump administration have led to a devaluation of the Iranian rial against foreign currencies, such as the dollar and euro, meaning the price of hockey equipment, made up mostly of foreign brands, has risen drastically.

Azam Sanaei is optimistic about the future of women’s hockey in Iran

For example, a single ice hockey stick may cost up to $350 (about 77m rials) – the equivalent of two months’ salary for an ordinary Iranian. Around three years ago, the price was 15m rials. Hockey skates can sell for anything between $500 and $1,200 a pair.

The financial situation also means that what funding authorities may have provided is being diverted towards more pressing needs.

In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has also created physical barriers, which have made it difficult for the team to practice – leaving coach Fagoaga, who is currently in France, to relay long-distance orders to Sanaei.

All of that does little to dull Sanaei’s or her teammates’ optimism for the future of hockey in Iran.

“I think today there are roughly between 300 and 400 people who play hockey in Iran and I believe this field, especially ice hockey, will have a very bright future for women,” Sanaei says.

Local ice hockey team dreams big in NW China

Source: Xinhuanet

With his eyelashes covered by white frost in the frigid cold, Tangerjak shouted with joy after he drove the puck from the circle and hit it into the opponent’s goal.

This is a common winter scene for Tangerjak, a 15-year-old student who lives in Fuyun, a county known for its extreme cold in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Tangerjak was introduced to ice hockey in 2014 and has practiced regularly ever since. He is part of the only ice hockey team in Fuyun, which temperatures can plunge as low as -51.5 degrees Celsius.

“I just love this game. It’s so cool and much fun,” Tangerjak said.

Back in 2013, the residents in Fuyun, which has a total population of 24,000, barely even knew about ice hockey.

But everything changed when Zhou Xiaofeng, a PE teacher at a local school and a former speed skater, decided to form a local team.

Yet introducing an unfamiliar sport was by no means an easy job. Knowing little about it, Zhou had to watch videos online to teach herself the rules and skills, then promote the sport among local primary and middle school students.

Tangerjak’s passion was ignited the moment he heard of Zhou’s initiative, and he instantly decided to become an ice hockey player. He was not the only one who was inspired. More than 30 children aged between seven and 16 applied for the team.

At the very beginning, neither an ice rink nor sticks were available. The team had to practise on a speed skating track until the end of 2013, when a project funded the team with equipment, including protective gear, ice hockey sticks, and skates.

Wearing brand-new gear, during training sessions Tangerjak and his teammates would intentionally fall to see whether the protective equipment really worked.

In addition, thanks to the project, Zhou was able to improve herself through a professional training program held in northeast China’s Qiqihar, some 4,000 kilometers away from Fuyun.

“It was not easy for me,” she said. “But all the efforts paid off when I saw the smiles on the children’s faces.”

As Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games approach, winter sports are gaining greater popularity with the upgrading of facilities in Altay Prefecture, where Fuyun county is located.

The support from all sides has injected new momentum into the ice hockey team. Over the past seven years, three professional coaches have volunteered training, and a proper outdoor rink was built in 2018.

Tangerjak dreams of playing for his country one day in the future. “I want to watch the ice hockey matches when the Winter Olympic Games open next year in Beijing,” said Tangerjak. “Hopefully, I can become a world-class player in future.” Enditem

Ice hockey scene in Hong Kong worries that kids are suffering without sport – ‘The cure can’t be worse than the disease’

Daryl Wong, Gregory Smyth and Keith Fong say the government needs to take into account the negative impact of not being able to play sports

By Patrick Blennerhassett – South China Morning Post

The Hong Kong government’s restrictions in fighting the coronavirus might now be doing more harm than good, says the co-founder and director of the China Hockey Group, Gregory Smyth.

The city’s hockey scene, which includes ice, inline and ball, has more than 1,200 regular participants, and the majority are kids. Smyth said children should be out playing sports right now, not sitting at home.

Smyth’s CHG runs the Junior Tigers, which has hundreds of youth players who have endured three ice rink shutdowns and  more than 140 days without the ability to play.  He said CHG will survive thanks to strong shareholders, but he feels the physical and mental toll may bring the largest cost.

“The big impact is on the parents and the kids,” said Smyth, who launched an elite men’s ice hockey tournament in the mid-1990s in his first official foray into the sport in Hong Kong. “The kids aren’t getting enough exercise. They’re getting depressed, they’re online all the time, they’re on devices and parents have to look after these kids if they’re not in school. It has a pretty negative impact.”

Smyth said he understands the need to fight the pandemic, but feels as if the government’s restrictions have gone too far.

“The cure can’t be worse than the disease,” he said. “We’re in a situation now where some of the regulations are worse than the cure.”

Smyth said ice hockey, which has roots in Hong Kong dating back three decades, also stands on the precipice of exploding. Two new ice rinks were to open just before the pandemic swept in early last year – a sheet in Discovery Bay and one at The Lohas, a new development in Siu Chik Sha.

This would bring the city’s total to five ice rinks, and allow for a massive expansion in terms of players, coaches and jobs. Each rink also hosts daily public skating and figure skating, helping bring in revenue given ice rinks are expensive to run and maintain.

“The sport is ready to boom and the next generation is there,” said Smyth. “This isn’t an expat sport. Our Junior Tigers programme is probably 80 per cent Chinese, so we’ve been able to introduce the sport quite well and grow it locally. We have a number of parents that have gone to school overseas and experienced it and then come back and have their kids play here.”

Hong Kong’s sport and recreation community finds itself suffering through blanket restrictions that have lumped outdoor sports with indoor sports. Smyth said one of the oddest things is the CHG runs games and practices out of Mega Ice, which is located within the Mega Box shopping complex in Kowloon Bay.

Ice hockey has been a mainstay at Mega Box for decades now

“The mall is open and full of people all the time, but the rink is closed. Figure that one out.”

Hong Kong’s fourth wave has now dragged on for months, and sports venues and gyms have been locked down since early December with no end in sight. Reports are the government isn’t considering lifting any current restrictions until well after the Lunar New Year, which runs from February 12-15.

Keith Fong, CEO of Powerplay Sports & Entertainment, which runs the inline league at the Jordan YMCA, and who has been involved in the city’s overall hockey scene for more than 20 years, said there is also an issue when it comes to Hong Kong’s geography.

Ice hockey’s hot beds lie in countries like Canada, the US and all over Scandinavia and Russia, where kids have massive green spaces and outdoor options to fill in the void of not being able to play. Hong Kong, although littered with country parks and hiking trails, pales in comparison, and also has some of the most cramped living spaces in the developed world.

“It’s different than say, in North America, where you might at least have a backyard,” said Fong, who was the coach of the National Hong Kong Inline Hockey team that competed in the 2018 Asian Roller Games in South Korea.

“But you know we’re cooped up here in four or five hundred square feet apartments, if that. So that’s where I come from when I look at this and its impact. There are no real alternatives for these kids right now.”

The closures have invariably hit the hockey scene’s coaches, which includes Daryl Wong. He works as an after school activity service provider, running inline lessons as well as ball hockey. He said he has received two government relief grants, one for HK$7,500 and another for $5,000, but they have done little to help his financial situation.

“It’s been quite frustrating to not be able to put effort into the career I chose to do. I have had to scale down,” said Wong, who is also an inline goaltender.

Wong said he worries the government may not fully understand how much people love the games they play and rely on it for their livelihood and happiness.

“You would think the government would understand how integral sport is to people’s lives at this point,” he said.

Team GilgitBaltistan Sports Association wins Pakistan Ice Hockey Championship

By George Da Silva – National Teams of Ice Hockey

Pakistan just finished holding the Pakistan Winter Sports Festival where Skiing, Ice Skating and Ice hockey events took place.  At 3rd Ice Hockey Championship. The final was played between GB Scouts and GB Sports Association. It was easy sailing for the team of GB Sports Association as they scored seven goals while their rivals score zero goals. Teams of PAF, Pak Army, GB Scouts, Punjab, Sindh, Civil Aviation Authority and GB Ski Association participated in the event.

Chief Minister Gilgit Baltistan Khalid Khurshid while addressing a high level meeting on International ski traversing event and promotion of winter sports said that winter sports would be promoted in Gilgit-Baltistan.

He said that steps would be taken to attract tourists to Gilgit-Baltistan events in winter.

Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Khalid Khurshid expressed happiness over the success of Gilgit-Baltistan Ice hockey team and congratulated all the players that tool part.

Young Standout Yu Sato Shooting for Success

By Jim Armstrong – Japan Forward

Teenager Yu Sato, who has already played for teams on three continents, is aiming to become the first Japanese forward in the National Hockey League.

Japanese ice hockey player Yu Sato has already played on three continents. Now the native of Saitama is aiming to take his game to the highest level with dreams of becoming the first Japanese forward in the National Hockey League.

Sato helped Japan win the gold medal at an Under-20 Division II tournament at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s world championships in January. The talented 18-year-old forward also had a stint with the Quebec Remparts, one of the most storied teams in Canadian junior hockey.

Ice hockey has a long history in Japan but has struggled for recognition against more popular sports like baseball, soccer and rugby. That may change if a player like Sato could make it in the NHL.

In Quebec, the 5-foot-10 (178 cm), 175-pound (79.3 kg) Sato was coached by Patrick Roy, a Hall of Fame goaltender who had a stellar 19-year NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche. He was also coach and vice president of hockey operations with the Avalanche.

Roy said he was impressed with the play of Sato while he was in Quebec during the 2019-20 season.

“He’s a good skater, he sees the ice very well and overall he’s a quality person,” Roy said. “It’s a big change, obviously the culture is totally different but he seems to adapt very well.”

Forward Yu Sato played for the Quebec Remparts in 2019-20

Fukufuji was First Japanese Native in NHL

Japan has never had a player in the NHL other than goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, who had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Kings in 2006-07.

There have been plenty of players of Japanese descent, like Paul Kariya and, more recently, Nick Suzuki, but a forward born and bred in Japan has never made it to the world’s most competitive league.

Sato got his start in hockey near his hometown with the Saitama Junior Warriors, a youth development team that also produced Aito Iguchi, who became an internet sensation when a video of him displaying his dazzling stick handling skills at the age of 11 went viral.

There was a time when ice hockey was primarily played on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido but due to several factors, including economic ones, the game is spreading to more populous regions like Saitama, which is just north of Tokyo.

Like many young Japanese players with talent, Sato, who plays left wing, knew that he needed to go overseas to fully develop as a player, so it was off to Moscow at the tender age of 11. He played for Krylia Sovetov in the junior hockey ranks in 2017-18, scoring 14 goals with 13 assists in 27 games.

He then spent another season in Finland before ending up with the Remparts for the 2019-20 season.

The Remparts are one of the league’s oldest teams and play in the 18,000-seat Videotron Center in Quebec City. Over the years the team has produced such hockey luminaries as Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur.



Opportunity for Growth

After the league shut down in late November due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sato moved to the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. Playing in 12 of the team’s 13 games through January 9, he recorded five assists.

During his stint in Quebec, Sato got to play against some of the best young players in the game, including Alexis Lafreniere who was selected first overall by the New York Rangers in the NHL Entry Draft on October 7, 2020.

Sato struggled with injuries early on during his time with Quebec and scored four goals and had six assists in 39 games.

“I think maybe he put too much pressure on himself,” Roy said. “The stats will come so statistics are not the main thing for him. We wanted him to develop into the best player he can be and I like what I’ve seen so far.”

Clearly, Sato’s time in Quebec and his team’s performance at the worlds in Lithuania show ice hockey in Japan is making progress.

“I think a lot of it is younger players like Sato have so much more access to information than players did a while ago,” said Chris Wakabayashi, director and GM of the Asia League’s Tohoku Free Blades. “They can go overseas and get valuable experience and that’s a huge factor.”

Wakabayashi, a Japanese-Canadian who has had a long coaching career in Japan, says he sees a lot of changes in the game here that bode well for the future.

“You see more kids like Sato in the Tokyo area getting into the sport,” said Wakabayashi. “There is now a professional team in Yokohama [Asia League expansion squad Yokohama Grits] and there is a lot of improvement in the level of coaching.”

Sato will be eligible for next year’s NHL draft and Wakabayashi said he thinks the young native of Saitama has the potential to someday make it with an NHL team.

“He already has a lot of international experience so I think he has a chance,” Wakabayashi said. “If a player like Sato was ever to make it in the NHL it would take the game to another level here.”

A sports complex with an ice rink in Chingeltei district will be opened soon

Source: GoGo Mongolia

An ice rink will be opened soon in the territory of the Chingeltei district, Mongolia, behind the 39th school of Denjiin Myanga.

The Deputy Governor of Chingeltei District, said that the sports complex has 1,000 seats in addition to the ice rink, which is open in winter and summer, as well as a swimming pool, basketball and volleyball courts.

The construction of the complex, which is being built with the state budget investment, is about 90 percent complete, and the landscaping work has not been completed yet, so it is expected to be commissioned after the new year.

Residents of the complex will be able to use the service free of charge.

 

Chingeltei district Ice rink. In Mongolia

Bulls’ Japan-born players having an impact on the ice this season

The North Iowa Bulls’ Sota Isogai practices at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena

By

When you think of hockey hotbeds, Japan is probably not the first place that comes to mind. For the North Iowa Bulls though, the country has had a sizable impact on the team’s 2020 success so far.

Second-year Bulls’ player Sota Isogai was named the NA3HL West Division Star of the Week for the week of Nov. 3, after scoring two goals with one assist in the Bulls’ record-setting 13-3 win over Willmar on Oct. 30. Isogai, a native of Nagano, Japan, is tied with Garrett Freeman for the team lead with six goals this season.

Isogai has been playing abroad for several years, with two seasons in Russia and two in Austria before coming to the United States.

Aside from Isogai, the Bulls also have first-year forward Shota Kaneko, of Tokyo, on the roster. This season is Kaneko’s first in the U.S., after he spent last season as a member of Japan’s U20 team. Kaneko currently has two goals on the season, along with three assists.

Shota Kaneko takes a shot during the North Iowa Bulls’ practice at Mason City Multipurpose Arena

Isogai and Kaneko are not the first Japanese born players to have suited up for the Bulls. Kohei Sato played for North Iowa for parts of three seasons from 2014-2017, before going on to play at the University of New Hampshire, becoming the first-ever Japanese born player to play Division I hockey.

“We like the Japanese players in that they are smart hockey players,” Bulls head coach Todd Sanden said earlier this season. “The first year is a bit of a language barrier, but the universal language of hockey is pretty transparent, and easy for those guys to understand. We’ve been blessed to have some very good Japanese players in our program.”

With one year under his belt, Isogai has grown more comfortable in a Bulls uniform. His English has improved by a lot over last season, and he has turned into a key player for the team.

Sanden was thrilled when Isogai announced he would be coming back, and said that Isogai’s return has been a big factor in the 9-3 Bulls’ success this season.

“Certainly we are excited when guys decide to come back, but with so many options and teams available at this level and different countries at the tier two level, it is never a given that guys are just going to return,” Sanden said. “We were very excited when he decided to come back, and he had other options, for sure. We’ve made him a captain here too. His return certainly is an important piece for our team.”

Isogai and the Bulls first connected at a tryout in Edina, Minnesota, in 2019. After trying out for several teams in the NA3HL, Isogai made the choice to join the Bulls, where he scored 22 goals in his first season in the states.

North Iowa Bulls players are given some instruction from coach Todd Sanden

“It’s been kind of a lucky, opportunity-based situation for us,” Sanden said. “Sota came to us on a bit of a bluebird opportunity. A guy reached out, he tried out for a couple teams in our league and ended up picking our team, which we are very thankful and fortunate for.”

Kaneko came to the Bulls through an advisor the team has worked with in the past, and who helped the team acquire Sato several years ago.

For both Isogai and Kaneko, the biggest adjustment between Japan and North Iowa has been the language, but both of them have been working hard to be able to communicate with their teammates.

“Language is probably the biggest thing, and chemistry. Just getting to know each other is probably the hardest thing,” forward Sean Sullivan said. “They’re pretty quiet and shy, coming over here and not knowing anyone. We just talk to them and try to get to know them. Being the initiation to try to get to know them is the biggest thing.”

So far, the differences between Japan and Iowa seems to fall by the wayside once the pair step onto the ice. Hockey in America is more physical than hockey in Japan, according to Isogai, but he and Kaneko have adjusted to it well.

“Physicality certainly is a part of the game, and they have integrated into that part of the game seamlessly,” Sanden said. “Shota initiates a lot of physicality when he is out there. He gets in quick on fore checks, and he separates guys from the puck with his body. We haven’t seen any tentativeness, they both are able to handle the physical style of play that we play in.”

This season, Isogai has felt a lot more comfortable both on the ice and off. With his English skills improving, and his body more adapted to American hockey, he has become a crucial part of the team’s attack.

“This year, I have better English,” Isogai said. “Everything is better. I’m more fast, and more strong.”

But this year has been an especially strange one in NA3HL hockey, with COVID-19 changing much of how the team goes about its day to day life. For foreign-born players, it can be an especially worrisome time as the pandemic continues to spread. Isogai says that his family hasn’t expressed too much concern about the virus, as the team is taking precautions.

“A little bit worried, but I’m playing hockey,” Isogai said. “It’s fun.”

Once you look past the language, the hockey style, and the other cultural differences that exist between Japan and the United States, there is one thing that Isogai, Kaneko, and the American-born Bulls can all agree on.

The glory of American cuisine.

“I like your food,” Isogai said. “I like hamburgers.”

In 2006, the first Iranians were selected in the NHL draft

Daniel Rahimi

By Vitaly Nesterov – National Teams of Ice Hockey

In 2006, a historic event happened for Iran – Two hockey players with roots in this country were drafted by NHL clubs

These hockey players were Daniel Rahimi and Rhett Rakhshani

Daniel Rahimi was born in 1987 in Sweden and before the 2006 draft he played in the system of  IF Björklöven. In the 3rd round, under the 82nd overall pick, the defender was drafted by Vancouver and Rahimi immediately moved to Canada, but played only in the AHL for Manitoba Moose.

After two seasons, Rahimi returned to Sweden.,  at the moment, Daniel is a playing in the Allsvenskan league (the second strongest league in Sweden), where he moved this season from the elite division  Club Vaxjo to IF Björklöven.

Rhett Rakhshani was born in March 1988 in the United States and was selected a little later than his future Linkoping teammate Rahimi – he was chosen by the Islanders in the 4th round under the 100th pick overall. Rhett has little experience in the NHL for his team – in the seasons 2010/11 and 2011/12, Rakhshani played a total of 7 games without earning a single point.

In season 2012/13, Rhett moved to Sweden and played fpr HV-71.  Rhett still plays in the country and in the 2015/16 season, Rhett played with Daniel Rahimi for Linköping HC.

For the last two seasons, Rakhshani has played in Frölunda HC and, of course, his achievements include a victory in the Champions League. Before the start of the new season,Rakhshani moved to Djurgårdens IF, but has not yet played for the new club.

Rhett Rakhshani

Pride of Japan

Japanese forward Yuri Terao skates during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Estonia

By Jim Arm Strong – IIHF.com

Yuri Terao figured his game was better suited to the rugged North American style. Following an impressive debut in the ECHL, the promising Japanese forward has his sights set on ice hockey’s biggest stage.

The 25-year-old Terao has exceeded expectations in his first season with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, scoring 18 goals and 22 assists in 61 games for the team that plays at the venue of the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics before the remainder of the season was put on hold in March due to the coronavirus.

He’s now back in Japan playing for his hometown team the Nikko Ice Bucks of the Asia League, which gives him the chance to stay fit until the ECHL resumes in December.

The decision to join the Grizzlies is the latest step in a career that has made steady progress at each stage.

“I really wanted to play with Japanese pride and do the best I could,” said Terao, who earned the nickname “The Magician” in his first season in Utah. “I know it’s all about results so I wanted to get as many goals and assists as possible.“

Terao is considered one of the top prospects to come out of Japanese hockey. The 173-cm (5-foot-8), 86-kg (190-pound) forward is small by North American standards but is known for his speed and hard work.

Yuri Terao Salt Lake, Utah

Terao got a taste of North American hockey when he played for the Waterloo Black Hawks of the USHL in the 2015/16 season when he also scored 18 goals and had 22 assists.

Despite being the smallest player on the Grizzlies roster, Terao doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game and has adjusted well to the smaller rinks in North America.

“The hockey culture is completely different,” Terao said when asked about the differences between his homeland and North America. “The systems are different, the quality of the reffing… Japan is less physical than North America where you have to battle for every chance.”

Japan has never produced an NHL player other than goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, who played briefly for the Los Angeles Kings in the 2006/07 season and is now Terao’s teammate with Nikko.

Terao would love nothing more than to break that barrier even if it meant playing only one game in the NHL. “I think my personal hockey style is closer to the North American style,” Terao said. “My long-term goal is the play at least one game in the NHL but before that I want to get called up to the AHL and play some games there.”

While it has a long history in Japan, hockey is overshadowed by sports that are bigger in Japan such as baseball, football or sumo wrestling.

Terao knows that having a Japanese player in the NHL would boost the popularity of the sport in Japan by leaps and bounds.

“To have a Japanese player in the NHL, the media reaction here would be great and then you would have more focus on the game,” Terao said.

Terao got into hockey at an early age. His father was also a professional player and Yuri started skating when he was just two years old. His brother Hiromichi also plays hockey.

Terao was born in Nikko, which is a hockey hotbed in Japan. Just two hours north of Tokyo, the popular tourist destination is known for its ancient temples and fall foliage and there are constant reminders of the Ice Bucks. Their logo adorns taxi doors and flags that are flown in front of stores.

Hockey Town Nikko flags are visible throughout the historic city of Nikko

The Ice Bucks resumed play in early October in a revised Asia League competition known as the Japan Cup. Due to travel restrictions, the tournament features only the five Japan-based teams while the Korean teams currently also have to play a domestic competition.

The Grizzlies are an affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. The ECHL is a mid-level professional hockey league with teams in the U.S. and Canada. It is one tier below the American Hockey League.

Terao’s Finnish coach in Nikko, Ari-Pekka Siekkinen, says he sees plenty of potential in his young player.

“Yuri has a high passion for the game,” Siekkinen said. “He wants to win the battles all the time, he is hungry to go to the net. He has really quick hands and a great shot.”

Siekkinen, who represented Finland at the 1992 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, thinks the sky is the limit for Terao.

“I think he could play in the NHL one day but needs a little more time,” Siekkinen said. “He wants to play at the highest level so as long as he keeps improving and has good coaching I think he can do it.”

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