Aito Iguchi was just 11 when the internet was first exposed to his exploits with the puck. Then there’s Yu Sato, a 2020 NHL draft prospect playing in the QMJHL. Yusaku Ando is thriving in one of the top developmental leagues in the world, the USHL. And Yuki Miura (Lake Superior) and Kohei Sato (New Hampshire) are making an impact in the NCAA.
The current influx of Japanese talent is unprecedented, and we’ve never been closer
to seeing a second Japanese born-and-trained athlete to play in the NHL after Yutaka Fukufuji tended goal for four games with the Los Angeles Kings in 2006-07.
But while the future of Japanese hockey may look bright, there’s a dark side to the story. Many coaches say the reason we’re seeing so many players coming over to North America is because the Japanese youth development system is badly lacking resources and structure, and leaving it behind is the only way for these players to succeed.
Japan has the same issue that even top-level nations such as Slovakia have, where the best players leave to play elsewhere because the domestic competition isn’t strong enough, but only on a much larger scale. The sport’s lack of popularity in Japan – Ando said he had to watch hockey on YouTube because it isn’t shown on television there – and the lack of a league system doesn’t help. “We need a big system overhaul with how we structure youth hockey in Japan because we don’t really have a league,” said Hiroki Wakabayashi, the founder and president of World Hockey Lab and the former coach of Hong Kong’s women’s team. “It’s all mini-tournament style going up to the high school level. That means kids can only play a few games per month. We start having real games when they get to the college level. We don’t really have a system to categorize AAA or AA or A. Everyone is playing in the same basket.”
Masumi Miura, Ando’s training coach, shares similar thoughts, saying hockey in Japan has been “lost in a long tunnel for the last 10 to 15 years without seeing any direction.”
As it stands, Ando is considered the best Japanese talent of his generation. Earlier this year, he made the Japanese under-20 team as a 15-year-old, recording six goals and eight points in a 10-2 victory over Czech Republic outfit Orli Znojmo. At the seven-game mark of the season, Ando led all under-17 players in the USHL with seven points, forcing scouts to take notice after he went to Youngstown in the 22nd round of the draft earlier this year.
But Ando’s key development time was spent in Canada, getting drafted to the USHL out of the esteemed Pursuit of Excellence academy in British Columbia. Yu Sato, meanwhile, played his youth and junior hockey in Russia and Finland before joining the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Miura and Kohei Sato played in the Czech Republic and Canada, respectively, before heading to U.S. colleges. The development path of these players fuels the narrative that the only way for a Japanese star to succeed at this point in time is to leave the country and look elsewhere for opportunities. (Iguchi is the outlier. The YouTube whiz kid with a small frame has yet to move over to North America, although he made some noise as one of the top performers at a USHL camp a few years ago.)
Given the challenges of growing the sport locally, the wave of recent success is still seen as a major achievement for a nation looking to move up the hockey ladder again. Japan had previously been in the top level of the World Championship tournament from 1998 until 2004, but it’s been downhill ever since (though the country was close to returning in 2015 before losing to Austria in a tiebreaker in Div. I-A). On the flip side, the women’s program is thriving, backed by one of the top goaltenders in the world, Nana Fujimoto.
Wakabayashi and Masumi Miura believe that having better coaches and more structured play back home is vital for hockey in Japan to move forward. And Wakabayashi is hoping that some of the current young stars make the NHL to help give the sport more exposure in Japan, something it desperately needs to help produce talent at the grassroots level.
“The newer players who may make it to the NHL, or a similar level, AHL, KHL, would help the publicity of hockey in Japan,” he said. “Japanese people love watching things on TV. If future NHLers start coming from Japan, it’s going to be big news.”