By Dave Eminian
Peoria Journal Star
November 7, 2003
PEORIA, Ill. – He scurried down the concourse on an urgent mission, stopping repeatedly to bow and utter his first English words on U.S. soil as he approached.
“Sorry, sorry,” Daisuke Obara said repeatedly to Peoria Rivermen media relations director David Rak, who’d been waiting in St. Louis for the young man from Japan to arrive after a day of flight delays.
It was Oct. 1, and Obara, 22, had bravely left his hometown off Hokkaido in the north of Japan some 15 hours earlier, with no idea what he was getting himself into.
Obara still barely knows. He has only played in three games for the Rivermen, and his only statistics are one shot and a -1 in a game against Wheeling on October 25.
Hockey players come from all over the world in today’s game, even in the ECHL. But they still don’t come often from Japan, and Obara’s arrival in Peoria makes him only the fifth Japanese player ever to skate in the league, and the first in the 22-year history of Peoria’s franchise.
They left the airport around 10:45 p.m. Central time – that’s lunch time for Obara, by the way. His first meal in America was at Denny’s, and Obara looked through the pictures on the menu and pointed at a burger with bacon and cheddar cheese.
“Taste good,” said Obara, whose first name is pronounced Dyes-KEH. “Taste good.”
For nearly three hours, they shared a pair of Japanese/English language translation books, the dome light in the car burning all the way up I-55 toward Peoria.
“He started talking hockey right away,” Rak said. “And he had this list of questions for us that somebody had written for him in English. He was supposed to practice them every day and ask the coach.”
“How did I do today, coach?”
And, “I’m sorry, English not good.”
Oh, and this one: “Did I make the team?”
Yes, Daisuke Obara, you made the team. Although the only way they could tell him was via 22-year-old advertising and marketing major Shoko Higuchi, a Bradley University student found by Rivermen president John Butler. She served as translator for this, Obara’s first interview, and she is with the player at practices and games.
What she relayed was a resume worthy of a terrific prospect, although one look at Obara on the ice told Rivermen coach Jason Christie all he had to know.
Obara didn’t see ice until he was 7, when a friend invited him to a practice for a sport called hockey. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Obara said. “Hockey was not popular, not like soccer and baseball. But I loved it that very first day.”
The 5-foot-9, 174-pound center skates like the wind, and arrived in Peoria with a sculpted physique. He learned to play the game on Olympic sized ice sheets, in aging arenas that seated only 3,000-4,000 spectators and seldom were filled.
His mother and father are bank tellers, his sister works for a stock brokerage and his brother is a police officer. Obara attended Waseda University, one of Japan’s most prestigious schools.
He studied social sciences there, and he learned how to play hockey well enough to lead Team Japan to consecutive gold medals in the Under-18 Asia Oceania Junior Championships in 1997 and 1998.
Japan took silver with Obara on its Under-20 World Championship team in 1999, and by 2001 he was playing in Japan’s highest national league, the 48-team monster known as the Kanto Division University Hockey League.
He scored 12 goals and notched 16 assists in 13 games for Waseda and helped a second-place finish, winning the league’s goal-scoring title and honors as its best forward.
In 2002, Obara scored 17 goals and 17 assists in 15 games during Waseda’s third-place finish, again winning the national scoring title and best forward honors, then led the club to a runner-up spot in the postseason tournament, where he was named best forward in the tournament.
There was a gold medal outing this year for Japan in the Asia Winter Games, a stint in the Nagano Olympic Memorial Cup and a place with Japan in the World Championships in Finland.
Obara saw NHL players for the first time in those world games, playing against the likes of Zigmund Palffy and Peter Forsberg. Yet on his first shift, against Germany, he scored on his first shot.
The Rivermen are hoping he’ll adjust quickly here, too.
“I want to be the first player from Japan ever to make the (class-AAA) American Hockey League and the NHL,” Obara said. “I have the same dream everyone here does.”
He’s just come a longer way to chase it. In Japan, where Obara says fighting in hockey is “considered impolite”, he has played for the Kokudo Bunnies, an elite franchise sponsored by a company that provides services to hotels.
The Rivermen, meanwhile, plan to purchase a computer language translation device, a hand-held unit that Obara and Christie can use to talk to each other during games.
Obara, on his first day of practice in early October, stopped for a second at the gate leading from the team bench to the ice, then plunged ahead.
“The size of the rink here, I’m not used to playing on something this small,” he said. “Such sharp corners. I’m impressed with how hard the players work here. I will try my best to match their desire.
“Once I got onto the ice, I didn’t know what to expect and I was worried. But I knew that this was something I had to do. So I did it.”
And Daisuke Obara has no idea what he is getting in to.