HOCKEY IN JAPAN
Dean H Ruetzler
It cannot lay claim to being the biggest international sporting event
to occur in Tohoku. The Soccer World Cup 2002 matches in Sendai, The Aomori
Asian Winter Games of 2003, and the Akita World Games of 2001 all have
stronger claims to that title. It cannot lay claim to that title even
if only Iwate is considered. The World Cup snowboarding event in 1997,
and the FIS Alpine Skiing World Championships, both held at Shizukuishi
Ski Area have stronger claims for that moniker.
However on Friday evening, February 7th 2003 one of Iwates most anticipated,
and bigger sporting events of the year, if not the decade, and Iwates
first international ice hockey match took place at the Morioka Ice Arena.
It was a tournament match between the Junior National Teams of Canada
and Finland, two of the stronger Ice Hockey playing nations in the world.
It can stake its claim to being the biggest international ice hockey event
to hit Iwate. Of course, the biggest international ice hockey occurrence
prior to it was when American Greg Anthony, in an Iwate Ice Hockey League
game, celebrating a "hat-trick" in his previous match, scored
a beautiful top corner goal, in a confused moment, against HIS OWN TEAM!
The game evolved into more of a phenomenon, and less of a match, as it
developed. It brought a huge crowd of between two and three thousand fans
to the arena. It was not the near sell-out expected, but the crowd number
multiplied that of the Japanese Professional Hockey League regular season
game played in the arena in December by an order of about five times.
The event brought out a large segment of the hockey fanatic population
in Tohoku, both Japanese and foreign-born, coming from all prefectures
within reasonable driving distance such as Akita, Fukushima, and Miyagi
Prefectures. Face paint, hockey jerseys, and crazy headwear was in abundance
in celebration of a hockey match that became a cross-cultural event as
much as a sports contest.
The Canadian team, probably due to the abundance of English language teachers
from North America in Tohoku, was clearly the crowd favorite. Canada,
though not always THE best hockey playing nation in the world (though
clearly in the upper echelons along with Russia, USA, The Czech Republic,
Sweden, and their opponents the Finns), clearly supplies the hockey world
with its most rabid and passionate fans. Aside from the Finnish team and
delegation, in a crowd of 2,000 plus people, no more than a handful of
fans were blatantly supporting the "Suomen Jaakiekkon Pelajat"
("Ice Hockey Players" in Finnish).
The Iwate Ice Hockey Association, the sponsoring organization and caretakers
of the match, presented a carefully planned, organized, and run hockey
game to the eagerly awaiting public, all the way down to getting the Mayors
and Governors pre-game speeches translated and announced in French and
Finnish. As the Finnish translator for the association the author of this
article would like to thank the Finns for bearing with my atrocious Finnish
grammar. A very special round of thanks should go to Morioka businessman
Seiichi Sasaki, who was in charge of international relations for the Hockey
Association. Without his efforts the match could very well have "flopped"
miserably. Au contraire mon frere, it did not, it was a very successful,
well run, and thoroughly enjoyed event with "kokusaika" (internationalization)
for all involved, regardless of country of origin.
Almost immediately after the opening face-off the Finns scored a goal,
which set the pace for the whole game. The Finns, clearly smaller and
younger than their opponents used a fast, stick handling, quick-passing,
accurate-shooting game plan, which emphasized teamwork. At times they
appeared to be skating backwards faster than the Canadian team could skate
Conversely the Canadians looking like a walking advertisement for steroid
abuse, or a National Football League team mistakenly dressed in hockey
pads, played a different game. The played a hard-checking, physical game,
that utilized the fair share of "goons"(a real hockey term,
used for unusually physical hockey players) on the squad. When the game
was essentially decided in the third period, the Canadian team resorted
to an overly physically intimidating style (read: "fighting"
and "lots of penalties"). The Canadian Team, though not necessarily
their many fans, appeared resigned to their fate. It was a period full
of hard checking, unnecessarily physical play, and a few incidents bordering
on an outright brawl. It reminded one of the famous quote: "I went
to the fights the other night, and then, suddenly, a hockey game broke
out!" The Finns, to their credit or detriment, depending on your
viewpoint, despite being much smaller, did not back down from this challenge.
It appeared, at times, that they even enjoyed it to a certain extent.
In contrast to the Finns whose goal play was adequate at best, the Canadian
goalie was outstanding, and his efforts kept the game from being a Finnish
rout. He was outstanding as the "last line of defense" for the
Canadians. When the match ended, the Finns won 5 to 3. Though by that
time the score was irrelevant to most, and the satiation of a hunger from
the hockey fans of Iwate and Tohoku was apparent. May "kokusaika"
on ice happen again in Iwate. It was truly an "experience to be had".
It was a strongly anticipated event, it met most of those expectations,
was talked about for days afterward, and it seems only those who live
and die with the fortunes of Canadian hockey, had even the slightest bit
EDITORS NOTE: The Canadian Team, wisely learning
the lessons of that night, made a few roster changes, revamped their playing
style to a less "goon"-ish approach, and finished the tournament
in second place, ahead of the Finns in third. The Czech Republic, probably
the eminent hockey power in the world the last few years, won the tournament.
The Japanese team, to the surprise of few, finished fourth. However Japanese
Hockey has nothing to be ashamed of. It hosted a well-run tournament,
and for one part of the country, it was nothing short of a unprecedented
and spectacular event.
© Dean H. Ruetzler
Nishine, Iwate, JAPAN and Warren/South Burlington, Vermont USA
all rights reserved