Ice hockey, considered by most to be the purview of toothless Canadians, black-eyed Minnesotans and bloodied Russians has been popular in Japan for years and its popularity has been spreading both in Japan and throughout Asia.
Asia League Ice Hockey was formed in 2003 when the Japan Ice Hockey League expanded to other Asian countries and in its current incarnation, boasts four teams in Japan, two in South Korea and one in China. Japan’s four teams are founding members of the league consisting of the Seibu Prince Rabbits, based in Tokyo, the Nikko Ice Bucks of Nikko, Tochigi, the Nippon Paper Cranes, of Kushiro, Hokkaido and the Oji Eagles of Tomakomai, Hokkaido. South Korea boasts High 1 of Chuncheon, South Korea and the fifth founding member of the league in Anyang Halla, based in Anyang South Korea. China rounds out the league with the China Sharks of Shanghai.
There have been changes since last year, mainly adding a shootout if the game is not settled during overtime, making a regular season win worth three points, a shootout win is worth two, a shootout or overtime loss counts for one, while a regulation loss earns zero. Also, in order to make the league more competitive, the Chinese team will be allowed four import players for this season and will be allowed seven for the 2009 – 2010 season, while South Korean teams will be permitted four imports until 2011.
Building on last season, the Oji Eagles will be looking to defend their title and are hoping that former Pittsburgh Penguin Shane Endicott keeps his team-leading form from last year. Oji is also counting on big contributions from Ricard Persson on the blueline and offensive support from local favorite Kunihiko Sakurai. Oji is backstopped by one of Japan’s best goalies in veteran Masahito Haruna. Hoping to bounce back from their playoff finals sweep of last year, the Nippon Paper Cranes will be looking for key contributions from Darcy Mitani and longtime Asia League veteran Chris Yule, who played for Seibu last year. The Cranes will be hoping for good chemistry on the blue line between long-time Crane Joel Dyck and newcomer Brad Tiley, who joins the team after a stint in Europe last year. Goalie Hisashi Ishikawa is expected to get the lion’s share of the workload this year and if he can get his save percentage up a couple of points, the Cranes will be tough to beat.
The Nikko Icebucks, Japan’s long-standing get-well card, hope to improve on last season’s early playoff exit, having been swept in the first round by Oji. Nikko’s finances have improved enough that they are able to welcome two imports this season in Eric LaFrenier and Mickey Gilchrist who last played in France and Australia respectively. Both players are fairly small by North American standards, but bring the right amount of grit for the Asia League and look for both to make big contributions if they are able to adjust to the play in Japan following their slow start this season. Nikko’s defense is solid, but by carrying only eight d-men, the Bucks blue-liners must stay healthy if goaltending stalwart Michio Hashimoto is to have any chance. After securing a first round bye last year, the league’s number one team in the regular season, the Seibu Prince Rabbits failed to capitalize and were whipped three games to one in the semi-finals by the Nippon Paper Cranes. Looking as strong as ever this year, look for Seibu’s biggest challenge to come in the playoffs. The team will likely be led once again by the league’s number-two point getter last season Joel Prpic. Although showered with boos whenever he touches the puck by opposing fans, there is no denying the fact that this former NHL and AHL standout puts the puck in the net with goalie-freezing consistency. Seibu will no doubt pile up the offensive numbers with strong contributions coming from Yosuke Kon, Go Tanaka, Takahito Suzuki and others up front. Seibu’s defensive core is extremely strong with a good mix of veterans and young players, making the job of top goalie Naoya Kikuchi that much easier.
Looking outside of Japan, Korea’s High 1 hopes to stay near the top and while the loss of Tim Smith was big, look for Alex Kim to put up big numbers to follow up on his league leading totals from last season. Look for big contributions from Brent Gauvreau and Japanese veteran Ryan Kuwabara up front and on the blue line by Chris Allen and Magnus Osterby. High 1 only carries two goalies and the bulk of the work should go to Hyun-Seung Eum, assuming he stays healthy. Anyang Halla looks to rebound from their first round playoff sweep at the hands of the Cranes and are looking good thanks to last year’s number four scorer, Czech Patric Martinec who will be helped on offense by former NCAA/ECHL/AHL standout Brock Radunske and local Dong-Hwan Song. Anyang’s blue line is anchored by the offensive defensemen Brad Fast, who was a teammate with Radunske at hockey powerhouse Michigan State and the big d-man, Jon Awe. Goaltending duties fall on the shoulders of local Ho-Seung Son who is going to have to stay healthy for High 1 to have a chance.
With the China Sharks we have the leagues perennial cellar dweller who will be trying are to claw their way out of the basement this year. With added help from the San Jose Sharks who, last year, sent Junior Sharks coach Derek Eisler to coach the club along with five North American player s with a mix of major junior, college and ECHL experience. The additions did not meet with resounding success as the lowly Sharks only managed to win three games and finished a staggering fifty points behind league leader, Seibu. This year, the Sharks added former NHL defenseman Steve McKenna and ECHL/AHL standout Adam Taylor. Adding punch to the front lines are Kevin Du, Kevin Korol and Jason Beeman. The Sharks are going with age in the net bringing in former NHL’er Wade Flaherty to work between the pipes and also to serve as the goaltending coach not only for the Sharks, but for the Chinese national team as well. Don’t expect any miracles here, but do expect that the Sharks will get more competitive this year.
With about two-thirds of the season remaining, there is still plenty of ice hockey to be seen throughout Japan, Korea and China with the playoffs set to begin in early February. For schedule, please see page 45 or go to www.alhockey.com.
Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, December 2008