DIAMONDS & ICE

The Puck Stops Here!
For those hockey nuts that are jonesing for an ice fix, there is hope for you in Japan; the Asia Ice Hockey League (AHL). Not to be confused with the American Hockey League, the AHL has been around for years in many different incarnations, the latest, following the expansion of the Japanese Ice Hockey League in 2003 features four teams from Japan, two from Korea and one from China.
While the regular season is behind us, the playoffs are in full swing and games are being played at a number of venues in Japan, including Higashi Fushimi in Tokyo, Nikko in Tochigi, Tomakomai in Hokkaido and Kushiro, Hokkaido. With all four Japanese teams and both Korean teams in, the playoffs should prove to be an action-packed, truly international affair.
While some may recall the days when the league was comprised mainly of University-level players and the level of play was sub-par at best, prepare for a pleasant surprise. With an influx of talent from North America and Europe, the level of the game in Japan has most definitely been brought up a notch. A watershed moment for the AHL was in 2004 when five-time Stanley Cup winner Essa Tikkanen became the player-coach for Anyang Halla. Although Tikkanen only played one season with Anyang, leading the team in penalty minutes, he certainly brought attention to the league from within Asia and from North America and Europe, showing high-level players there that indeed, there is hockey to be played in Asia.
Currently, the AHL boasts quite a few NHL and Elite-level players including goaltender Jamie “Noodles” McLennan, who joined the Nippon Paper Cranes this season and has been rock-solid in the pipes, sharing the load with Hisashi Ishikawa. The Cranes also boast former-NHL’er Tyson Nash and Asia League veteran Joel Dyck. The other Hokkaido team, Oji Paper has former Swedish Elite League and ex-NHL’er Ricard Persson, and North American standouts including Aaron Keller and Shane Endicott. Looking at Korea, Anyang Halla features the Czech quartet of Filip Stefanka, Patrik Hucko, Tomas Hruby and Patrick Martinec. High1 (formerly Kangwon Land) boasts the league’s leading scorers in Tim Smith and Alex Kim. Bud Smith and ex-NHL’er Steve McKenna back up the two snipers. The China Sharks have been nothing less than a disappointment this year, despite an addition of four North American players, they have wallowed in the basement from the beginning of the season and will hopefully get things on track for next season.
Looking back to Japan, the Nikko Ice Bucks manage to remain competitive despite not having the budget to snare top-priced players and remain a fan favorite, and a large contingent of Ice Bucks’ fans are always on hand when the team plays anywhere in Japan. Rounding out the league are the Seibu Prince Rabbits, a team that everyone loves to hate, the Yankees of Asia Ice Hockey. With a huge budget, Seibu puts together a strong team every year and consistently draws large crowds at their home rink in Nishi Tokyo. Seibu is largely reviled by fans of other teams with many taking a stance of rooting for whichever team is playing against Seibu.
While some may admire Seibu’s grittiness, most see them as dirty cheap-shot artists, with no player more loathed than former NHL’er Joel Prpic. Among the league leaders in scoring, every time Prpic touches the puck he is booed lustily by opposing fans and only cheered when sent to the sin bin. This season the Rabbits also acquired Richard Rochefort and rely on veteran Chris Yule, one of only two of the so-called “Seven Samurai”, who were recruited to play on the Nagano Olympic team, still playing in Asia.
While the regular season has ended, with round two of the playoffs kicking off March first and the finals starting mid-March, there is still  plenty of bone-jarring checks, goals and saves to be seen.

Major Major Major Major
Baseball fans do not often find themselves wanting in Japan; baseball is hugely popular on the archipelago with excellent high school, university, corporate and professional teams. For those who must have the North American Major Leagues, Japan can represent a bit of a rough patch. Next month, there is a major respite on tap as the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox meet the Oakland Athletics to open their 2008 campaigns.
Since 1989, Major League Baseball devotees have been able to get a small fix every other year, as a group of Major-League All-Stars have made the pilgrimage to Japan to play against a group of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) All-Stars in a series of games with nothing more than national pride on the line. These All-Star games are fun to watch, but are really no more than home run derby’s for the players after a long season. This will mark just the third time and first in 4 years that MLB has held its season opener in Japan, with games that actually count in the standings, following the Yankees and Devil Rays in 2004 and the Mets and Cubs in 2000.
This time around, the Sox and A’s will each play two games against an NPB team, which teams have yet to be determined, but will almost certainly include one game apiece against the Yomiuri Giants as they are a headline sponsor of the trip. Following the exhibition games on March 22 and 23, both teams will have a rest/workout day, and then will play each other at the Tokyo Dome on March 25 and 26 with the A’s being designated as the home team for both games.
As more Japanese players opt to play in the Major Leagues, Japanese fans have taken a greater interest than ever before in following North American teams so as to keep tabs on local favorites. Boston boasts legendary hurler Daisuke Matsuzaka and 2007 All-Star, set-up man Hideki Okajima, who has become a fan favorite in Boston thanks in large part to his dominance of the Yankees in the 2007 post season. There is a chance that Matsuzaka may not make the trip due to the pending birth of his second child, however, fans in Japan have high hopes that they will get to see “the Monster” pitch again. The Oakland team is coming off of a tough season in 2007, but has been building a solid team the past few years and are sure to provide a solid opponent to the Sox.
Be sure to check out the games if you are able, as Major League Baseball in Japan is a rare treat, indeed.

Story by James Souilliere
From J SELECT Magazine, March 2008

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