When you think of hockey hotbeds, Japan probably wouldn’t be the first place that comes to mind. The sport was not played in the country until the 1920s, and professional hockey did not arrive on the scene until the formation of the Japan Ice Hockey League in 1966.
Only one Japanense-born player has ever reached the National Hockey League, goaltender Yutaka Fukukuji who appeared in four games with the Los Angeles Kings in the 2006-07 season.
Fukufuji is also one of nine Japanese players who have played in the ECHL, going 95-61-11 in 191 career appearances with Cincinnati, Reading and Bakersfield over six seasons from 2002-03 through 2008-09.
The latest Japanese player looking to climb up the professional ranks in North America is Wheeling’s Yushiroh Hirano. The 23-year-old began playing when he was only three, thanks mainly to his father and uncle, who each played professional hockey in Japan during their younger years.
With so few Japanese-trained players competing at a high level, Hirano looked elsewhere for influence as he was learning the game.
“There weren’t any Japanese players in particular that I looked up to, but I enjoyed watching the Oji Eagles pro team from my hometown,” he said. “I did really like to watch Joe Sakic. I thought he was a good role model as a player.”
Hirano had to do a lot reaching out on his own behalf to get noticed due to the lack of attention paid to Japanese hockey by high-level scouts.
“It is not easy for a Japanese player to get an opportunity to play at a high level because there are not a lot of scouts, but it is still possible,” he said. “Players must take initiative to reach out to scouts and agents in order to get exposure.”
Those efforts paid off for Hirano in 2015. After playing in various European leagues and for Japanese teams in international tournaments, Hirano earned a spot in the United States Hockey League with the Youngstown Phantoms.
“My experience in the USHL taught me that I always need to be focused on my responsibilities or else I would face consequences. Accountability was huge and that helped me stay in order.”
Hirano enjoyed a successful season in his one year with the Phantoms, as he finished third on the team with 46 points and tied for fourth with 22 goals in 54 games.
He returned home for the last two seasons, playing primarily with the Tohoku Free Blades of the Asia League, before signing a contract with the Nailers over the summer, and earning an invite to training camp with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.
The first month of the season has taught Hirano what he needs to work on to be able to further his career in North America.
“Players are smarter, faster and also tougher,” he said. “These three things I've realized pro players are and I'm looking forward to working on all of these things to help my team win games.”
Hirano has one assist in six games this year, but knowing what he needs to do to be successful should serve him well as the season progresses.
And in the bigger picture, he’s hoping to bring more attention to the sport back home, so that more youngsters have an opportunity to chase their NHL dreams.
“I'd like to help grow the sport of hockey in Japan,” he said. “I think teaching what I learn here, as well as playing pro hockey in North America, will show kids that it's possible to do anything as long as you work hard.”