By Mark Simon
Special to NHL.com
Nov 22, 2002
Charlotte Checkers forward Takahito Suzuki says that there are a lot of Japanese players that could be competitive in hockey in North America, so maybe his emergence in the ECHL will do something for hockey like that which has happened in baseball.
The 27-year-old Suzuki has eight goals and 13 points in 13 games with the Checkers, all while adjusting to a different brand of hockey and a different type of lifestyle in the southern part of the United States.
A native of Tokyo who tallied 45 goals and averaged better than a point per game in three seasons for Kokudo of the Japanese Hockey League, Suzuki expressed an eagerness to play in the US over the summer and his team permitted him to sign with Charlotte. It was clear from his first game, in which he netted a hat trick, that he would fit in just fine.
“He’s a great skater and he has great quickness,” said Checkers coach Don MacAdam, who was previously familiar with Suzuki from his time coaching in Japan. “He doesn’t have an overpowering shot, but he has great shot placement. He reads the ice well and knows how to get his shot. He can finish his checks too. He could play in the AHL if a team is looking for a player who fits into an up-tempo game.”
Suzuki said his game is similar in nature to NHL star Paul Kariya in both speed and size (Suzuki is 5-foot-9). He wouldn’t allow himself to be labeled as a Japanese version of Wayne Gretzky, but MacAdam said he was the best university player ever in Japan and had been terrific as a pro there. The ECHL had two Japanese players previously, but Suzuki was the first to make a broadcast crew say “Oo-tah Key-may-ta” (the Japanese version of “He shoots, he scores!”)
“It’s very competitive, but I am enjoying it,” Suzuki said through an interpreter, local resident Shingo Katayama. “The players here are bigger than Japanese players and the rink is smaller. I’m shorter than some of the other players here, so I try to cover for that with my speed.”
Suzuki plays on the first line with center Allan Egeland and forward Vince Malts, and sees a lot of time on the power play and penalty kill. In training camp, he had plenty of fellow foreigners to befriend, as the Checkers roster included players from Latvia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Slovakia. He also had an understanding coach in MacAdam, who knows a little Japanese and is recognized internationally for his coaching experience.
Suzuki’s wife Sachiko and two-year-old daughter, Sara, joined him too and the three are learning as they go. One early culture shock was learning how to cook. In Japan, most foods are cooked at 100 degrees, and the Suzuki’s didn’t realize that turning the temperature all the way up would burn their food, until they set off the smoke detector a few times.