While far from an international hockey hotbed, Japan's professional hockey history goes back nearly as far as that in many European countries. In recent years, a handful of former NHL players have gone to Japan to play for clubs in the Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH).
In addition to spending the season living and traveling in Japan, the players also make trips to South Korea and mainland China to play the two Korean and one Chinese club in the circuit. Foreign players who have made the journey -- ranging from Shjon Podein to Joel Prpic -- get the cultural experience of a lifetime, on and off the ice.
This season, the Asia League welcomed several new NHL alumni to its ranks. In the recently completed playoffs, two players who signed for this season with Oji Paper -- defenseman Ricard Persson and center Shane Endicott -- played in the finals against rival Japanese club Nippon Paper Cranes, which featured goaltender Jamie McLennan and left winger Tyson Nash.
When all was said and done, Oji swept the Cranes to win its first Asia League championship since the league's creation in 2003-04.
Hockey life on Hokkaido
Oji Paper and the Nippon Paper Cranes are based on Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. The clubs, which derive their names from the companies that own and sponsor them, have lengthy hockey histories.
In most of Japan, hockey is a minor sport. Although many of the game's strategies and traditions seem tailor-made to Japanese culture, hockey trails far behind baseball and soccer in popularity. Japanese hockey reflects the culture of the country, which has worked to the advantage and detriment of the hockey program.
On the positive side, hockey has an element of bushido -- the warrior's code of Japan's feudal past and modern martial arts -- that fits perfectly with the ideal of sacrificing personal goals and battling through adversity for the good of the team. Japanese players typically practice hard and maintain outstanding conditioning. On the flip side, there is a cultural politeness and social hierarchy in daily life that is not always conducive to playing winning hockey.
"The Japanese have a system in their culture where they respect the older people," former NHL coach Dave King told the Washington Post during his stint as Team Japan's general manager. "It's the same in sports. The older athlete is a sempei, a younger player is a kohai. The kohai player would never embarrass a sempei player in practice, like in a one-on-one drill. Also, in a game, there's a tendency to give the puck to the oldest guy on the line. Again, it's that he should shoot, because it's a respect thing. This doesn't really work."
Recruiting top athletes never has been easy in Japanese hockey. On the big island of Honshu, few youngsters aspire to play hockey because their exposure to the game is limited relative to baseball and other sports. Japanese hockey often has relied on western players of partial or full Japanese descent to be the stars on their domestic and national teams. More recently, a growing number of western players of European extraction have lent their experience to help refine the program.
Nevertheless, there are pockets of strong hockey support in the country, especially on Hokkaido. The island has a climate much like that of northern New England or Ontario, with cold, snowy winters.
There, from the grade-school level up, young players have access to well-organized hockey leagues. As a result, a disproportionate number of Japanese pro players -- including former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji -- hail from Hokkaido. Likewise, the Hokkaido-based teams have been mainstays in Japanese and Asian hockey for decades.
The Oji Paper club was founded as the Oji Eagles in 1925. Prior to the creation of the Asia League, it had won 47 championships between the All-Japan championship and the former Japan Hockey League. The club is based in the port city of Tomakomai, in the southern part of the island.
The Nippon Paper Cranes call the eastern Hokkaido city of Kushiro home. The club was founded in 1949 for factory workers at the Jujo Paper Company. In addition to the pulp and paper industry, the city is known for its fisheries and mines. The Jujo team eventually joined the Japan Hockey League in 1974-75. The club became known by its current name after Nippon Paper bought out Jujo Paper in 1993. Since the creation of the Asia League, the Cranes have won a pair of titles.
This season, Oji Paper finished third in the Asia League during the regular season, while the Cranes finished fourth. Due to a quirk in the ALIH scheduling system, that actually worked to the advantage of these clubs and to the detriment of the first-place Seibu Prince Rabbits and second-place High1 Chuncheon, a Korean team.
Under the Asia League playing system, the first-and second-place teams earn first-round byes in the playoffs after a 30-game regular season that ends in late January. Due to the nature of the league scheduling, the teams with byes can go a full month between games. For instance, High1 finished its regular season Jan. 28, but didn't start the semifinals against the Nippon Paper Cranes until March 1.
McLennan, who kept an online photo journal and blog of his season in the Asia League, admitted the scheduling gave his team a significant edge over their Korean opponents in the semifinals.
"To practice that long without a game is just plain ridiculous," McLennan wrote. "At least we start on February 9th, so it is only a mildly painful layoff."
Not surprisingly, the Prince Rabbits and High1 found it difficult to get their motors revved again after the month-long layoff. After the Cranes swept Korean club Anyang Halla in the first round, three games to none, they took out High1 in four games.
Likewise, Oji Paper swept the Nikko Bucks in the first round and then beat Seibu in three straight games en route to an undefeated postseason.
Hockey's intercontinental champion
Swedish defenseman Ricard Persson never was an impact player during his 229-game NHL career with the New Jersey Devils, St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators. He was a puck-mover who never was prolific enough offensively or enough of a shut-down player defensively to become a full-time starter in the NHL. Nevertheless, Persson always has been a highly skilled hockey player.
He has been a vital cog in the successful championship runs by a host of his non-NHL clubs. This season, as a member of the ALIH championship-winning Oji Paper team, he became hockey's unofficial "Intercontinental Champion." Persson, 38, now has won championships in four countries on three different continents -- he won a Swedish Elite League title with Malmö IF in 1993-94, an American Hockey League championship with the Albany River Rats in 1994-95, and a German league championship with the Berlin Polar Bears in 2004-05.
This season, Persson rounded out his career experiences by signing with Oji Paper. He tied for 16th in the Asia League with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 30 games and logged heavy ice time during Oji's playoff sweeps of Nikko, Seibu and Nippon Paper.
In the deciding game of the final, Persson scored the first goal in Oji's 3-2 win over the Cranes. The game-winner was scored on the power play by former Pittsburgh Penguins center Shane Endicott.
Endicott, 26, joined Oji Paper this season after splitting the 2006-07 season between three minor-league clubs. His addition proved crucial for the Japanese club. He led the team and was fifth in the Asia League with 35 points, on 13 goals and 22 assists.
Noodles and Nasher on Nippon Paper
|After spending the 2006-07 season with the Calgary Flames, goaltender Jamie McLennan split the 2007-08 campaign between the Russia Super League and the Asia League.|
A year ago at this time, goaltender Jamie McLennan was a member of the Calgary Flames, gearing up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the backup goaltender to Miikka Kiprusoff. His lone postseason appearance last 18 seconds and saw him ejected for attacking Detroit's Johan Franzen.
This year, the 36-year-old goalie, affectionately known as "Noodles," had a much busier season overseas. The former Masterton Trophy winner (1997-98) started the year in the Russian Super League as a member of defending champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk. His stay didn't last long.
Metallurg lured former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Travis Scott back into the fold from Germany's Cologne Sharks. Scott widely was considered the best goalie in the Russian league last year and was instrumental in Magnitogorsk winning the RSL championship. That left McLennan out in the cold.
Shortly after being released by Metallurg, McLennan and former St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes left wing Tyson Nash received offers to join the Nippon Paper Cranes. The invitation came because the two Edmonton natives are friends with long-time Cranes player Joel Dyck. The club also features former NHLer Niklas Sundblad, a Swede, and Japanese-Canadian ALIH veteran Darcy Mitani, who previously played in the ECHL and for the University of North Dakota.
Nash, 32, spent last season with two different teams in the AHL after carving out a five-plus season niche in the NHL as a role player best known for agitating opposing players. He jumped at the chance to join McLennan and the other imports on Nippon Paper.
Unfortunately, Nash's season was limited to five games, in which he scored once and added 16 penalty minutes. He picked it up offensively in the playoffs, and tallied a goal that briefly put the Cranes ahead of Oji in the deciding game of the final.
McLennan, on the other hand, was indispensable to the Cranes. He ranked second to Seibu's Kazuhito Katayama in overall goaltending stats, posting a .921 save percentage and 2.50 goals-against average. In the playoffs, he was even better. McLennan was instrumental in Nippon Paper's victories over Kangwon Land and High1.
Beyond his accomplishments on the ice, the relaxed schedule of the Asia League gave McLennan and Nash the chance to spend significant time in the Cranes' home city of Kushiro and the various Japanese, Korean and Chinese locales of the circuit.
Off the ice, they traveled with their western teammates and a translator named Yugi. Along the way they experienced what the league had to offer, from posh hotels to ancient temples, shopping malls and outdoor markets, eastern and western bars and eateries, and famous landmarks ranging from Tiananmen Square in Beijing to the Hoheikan in Sapporo.