Michael Arace commentary: Blue Jackets get look at Japanese pioneer

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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The first Japanese hockey player drafted by an NHL team was Taro Tsujimoto, a fleet center for the Tokyo Katanas. He was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the 11th round in 1974. He became a legend because he was a myth.

Tsujimoto did not exist. His team, the Katanas — a loose translation of “Sabres” — did not exist. They were the product of the imagination, and the telephone book, of then-Buffalo GM Punch Imlach, who chafed at the painfully slow nature of those old drafts, selected a fictitious player as a way to protest and did not reveal the joke until months later.

Forty years later, you can find a Tsujimoto Sabres jersey, or a Tsujimoto Katanas T-shirt, somewhere in cyberspace. The difference now is that Tsujimoto is more fact than fiction — his progeny are, anyway.

Ryo Hashimoto, a 21-year old from Sapporo, Japan, is real. It was a delight to sit and chat with him and his translators yesterday, after a session of the Blue Jackets’ development camp, which runs through Thursday at the Ice Haus.

Hashimoto is a defenseman for the Oji Eagles of the Asia League, which is composed of eight teams from Japan, China and South Korea. He understands that, at

5 feet 10 and 165 pounds, he is about the size of one of Jack Johnson’s thighs.

Hashimoto has, after just a few days in Columbus, learned enough English to describe the next step in his progression. “Power,” he said with a smile, holding his hands above his shoulders.

Japanese have been playing hockey since the 1920s. Their national teams have qualified and/or competed in eight Olympics since 1936. Their last appearance was at the Nagano Games in 1998, when they were coached by former Blue Jackets coach Dave King.

Hiroyuki Miura was the first Japanese player drafted by an NHL team, the Montreal Canadiens, in 1992. The second, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, played four games for the Los Angeles Kings in 2007. Others have been skirting the edges of the big leagues.

The New York Islanders had speedy Shuhei Kuji at their prospects camp in 2009. The Islanders have Yuri Terao in their prospects camp this year. The Jackets have Hashimoto.

“The Japanese public is aware of his story,” said Yasuhiro Umeta, an official with the Asia League and the Japanese hockey federation. “He is trying not to feel it, but he knows there is (a weight) on his back. … He is the one of hope.”

Hashimoto’s pioneering route was first plotted in Tokyo, during a dinner-party conversation between Blue Jackets assistant trainer Naoto Goto, longtime Japanese national team coach Mark Mahon and Umeta.

They wanted to bring another young player to the U.S. and thought Hashimoto was fit for the cause. Goto pitched the idea to Blue Jackets amateur video scout Scott Harris, who asked for tape, and more tape. Harris got behind Hashimoto. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gave the final approval.

“I was surprised, excited, nervous,” Hashimoto said.

Soccer and baseball dominate the sporting landscape in Japan. Hashimoto said that, among winter sports, hockey ranks third in popularity behind figure skating and snowboarding. He plays at the highest level in his part of the world, but when he tells his friends that he plays hockey, they say, “Oh, that’s nice.”

There are 28 players from 10 countries in the Blue Jackets’ development camp. One, Thomas Larkin, has hockey roots in Italy — but Hashimoto is dealing with the biggest culture shock. He is skating on smaller, NHL-sized ice for the first time, and he does not understand English. Thursday, during the scrimmages, he will gain a greater understanding of “body check.”

“A lot depends on him and how he is evaluated,” Umeta said.

Umeta and others like him are trying to nudge Japanese hockey to higher ground. Their immediate goals are to strengthen the Asia League and their national teams. To do that, they want to pipeline more players into Canadian Junior, American collegiate and North American minor leagues — and, ultimately, the NHL.

Hashimoto is evidence that they are not joking around.

Michael Arace is a reporter for The Dispatch.

marace@dispatch.com

@MichaelArace1

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