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Japanese Hockey Impeded by Customs

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 1998; Page C8

NAGANO, Feb. 8—When Japan's men's hockey team wanted to learn to play more physical last summer, coaches took the players off the ice and onto the AstroTurf.

"We brought two football coaches into Japan to work on hitting technique, because football coaches teach it better than anyone else," said Dave King, the team's general manager. "They had never done much hitting before; they had mainly a skill game. So all summer long, twice a week, we'd do hitting drills with the guys out in full pads on the artificial turf.

"It sounds crazy, but it got them more accustomed to contact and gave them a confidence for it."

Japan could not have played its way into the Games, but as host country was given a berth in the eight-team, preliminary tournament. Two teams from that group will advance to play hockey powerhouses such as Canada, the United States, Finland and Russia. The Japanese will not be one of those two teams, but Japan has looked far from foolish despite its nascent status.

Japan's fairly rapid improvement, however, has not come without growing pains or complications. The main challenge for King, a former NHL and Canadian national team coach, and Bjorn Kinding, a former Danish and Swiss national head coach, was improving the sport in a country where it is not particularly popular and not drawing the best athletes. Their somewhat controversial solution: bring in seven "gaijin"-"heritage players" who were born in Canada or the United States but are of Japanese descent.

All of the heritage players have been granted Japanese citizenship in recent months, although many don't speak the language and can't read their new passports. They know key hockey terms, however, and their efforts have raised the talent level of the national team demonstrably. Ryan Fujita, a 25-year-old Alberta native, is the team's leading scorer, and Dusty Imoo is expected to earn most of the available time in goal.

The gaijin also have brought a new attitude to the team.

"Our heritage players have helped the team immensely," Kinding said. "They are players who grew up in hockey playing countries, and they don't think playing teams like Belarus or Italy is that scary.

"If they think we are going to win three games, for all the other players, it's a good thing to hear that and begin to think it is possible."

But the seven foreign players, or the "gaijin samurai," as they have been dubbed, were only able to change the demeanor of the team to some extent. Changes also had to come from the squad's native Japanese, a monumental task. The polite, respectful culture of Japan that so many visitors to these Olympics have found charming is precisely the kind of environment that fosters losing hockey.

"The Japanese have a system in their culture where they respect the older people," King said. "It's the same in sports. The older athlete is a 'sempei,' a younger player is a 'kohai.' The kohai player would never embarrass a sempei player in practice, like in a one-on-one drill.

"Also, in a game, there's a tendency to give the puck to the oldest guy on the line. Again, it's that he should shoot, because it's a respect thing. This doesn't really work.

"In the end, all we did was say to the guys, 'You have a culture, and we understand that. It's very important and it's a charming culture, too. But when you step across the line and go onto the ice, you have to leave that culture behind and respect the hockey culture, which is to compete, regardless of age and size.'"

King, whose day job is as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, first got involved with the Japanese national program through clinics he used to teach here in the summers. After he left his job as coach of the Calgary Flames in 1995, officials here asked him to come live in Japan and advise the country's six professional hockey teams. They also wanted his advice on preparing a team for the 1998 Olympics.

King lived in Japan for two years before returning to Canada and brought in Kinding, a native of Sweden. Some of the customs here surprised them, such as the players' routine of lining up on the bluelines before games and bowing to the fans. The home team then welcomes the visiting team's fans with a chant, and the visiting team's fans respond with another chant. Players also bow to referees after games.

It's not the NHL, although the North American professional league does have a decent following here. There is a monthly magazine dedicated solely to the league, and two NHL regular season games played here in October were quite successful. The NHL's style of play is also catching on, although not without wonderment from some older fans.

Fumio Gunji, 65, was at Aqua Wing on Saturday when Japan surprised Germany by playing competitively before falling, 3-1. His son-in-law, Takayuki Kobori, is one of the team's defensemen. He is 6 feet 1 and weighs 216 pounds.

"At first, I couldn't believe how much checking and hitting there was," Gunji said through an interpreter. "But my son-in-law has the largest body structure on the team, so he gets involved in that a lot. They like him to do it."

The Americans' crushing victory over China shows that women's hockey is still wildly uneven, with Canada and the United States, the No. 1. and 2 seeds in Nagano, dominating world play and other countries lagging far behind in a tournament that numbers only six teams. Earlier in the day, Canada crushed Japan by the football-like score of 13-0 and Finland also defeated Sweden by a touchdown, 6-0. That means the three top teams won by a combined score of 24 to nothing.

Although the U.S.-China game was even more one-sided than the score suggests, fans in the cavernous Aqua Wave rink, which looks like a hangar for jumbo jets, were still excited. A large contingent from the United States waved flags and screamed for the U.S. women.

"I think about girls growing up and knowing that their are more options for them than just figure skating," said Christina Dunn, 28, of Watertown, Mass., whose sister, Tricia, plays on the U.S. team. "These women are showing them that they can do something maybe a little more non-traditional."

Heather Norton, 23, of Ogunquit, Maine, who played hockey at the University of New Hampshire, called the game "historic."

"So many women have spent their lives breaking down the barriers between men's and women's sports and breaking down old stereotypes," Norton said. "This game should have happened a long time ago."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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