Rarely do Japanese-born hockey players make the jump to North American professional hockey.
Before this season, only one Japanese player had played for Wheeling -- Hiroyuki Miura, who played in six games for the Thunderbirds in 1993-94 before returning home to Japan. Goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji played four games for the Los Angeles Kings in 2006-07.
One Japanese player hoping to find success in North America is 23-year-old forward Yushiroh Hirano, playing in his first ECHL season with the Nailers this year.
Professional hockey has existed in Japan since 1966, beginning with the now-defunct Japan Ice Hockey League. In 2003, Asia League Ice Hockey was formed, bringing together teams from Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia.
The native of Tomakomai, on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, has been around the game of hockey his entire life. His father played professionally in Japan, and he took up the game himself at only three years old. He grew up not being able to watch televised NHL games in Japan, instead taking in games from videotapes. Hirano began following the Avalanche and idolizing Joe Sakic.
Hirano's hockey journey began as a teenager with amateur hockey in Japan, and he began suiting up for the national junior team at age 16. He moved to Sweden for the 2014-15 season to improve his game, and then became the first Japanese player to play in the USHL when he joined the Youngstown Phantoms in 2015-16. Hirano finished third on his team in scoring that year, amassing 24 goals and 22 assists in 54 games.
Hirano spent the next two years with the Tohoku Free Blades of the Asia League, where he excelled with 48 points in 40 games, and Kalmar HC in Sweden's Division 2 league, where he recorded 13 points in 18 games.
This season, Hirano was ready to move to North American professional hockey and work towards his goal of playing in the NHL.
"I want to play hockey at a high level," he told me this week. "I wanted to play in North America, where the hockey is very good. They also have the NHL, which is the highest league in the world."
Hirano, now 6-feet-2 and 212 pounds, made his debut on Oct. 20, and scored his first ECHL goal -- an empty netter -- on Nov. 17. It was a slow start as he adjusted to the different style of hockey.
"This league is very different," he said. "They do dumping and chasing, there’s lots of hitting, fighting. In Japan, there is more skating and more skill. It’s not necessarily better, they just play it differently."
As Hirano has gotten more comfortable, he's improved in his play. His biggest strength is his shot, and he's been able to use it more, registering 14 shots in his last five games.
"I have confidence in my shot, and I just want to keep shooting," he said.
Hirano has now registered four goals and six assists through 20 games, including three goals and two assists in his last five games.
"I scored the goals, but they were good plays by my teammates," said Hirano. "I like to score, but I think that’s my job. If I can get a great opportunity, I should score, and do what I can to help the team win."
Despite a point-per-game pace through the past five games and an increased role on the Nailers' top line with Nick Saracino and Cam Brown, Hirano isn't entirely happy with his play.
"I am not satisfied with my play" he said. "I can still work on everything, and find new good skills to work on, get smarter, play tough."
Hirano showed some of that toughness this week against Norfolk. After his linemate Brown was flattened by a hit, Hirano immediately came flying in to defend him. He was held back by officials, so he was not credited with an official fight.
Hirano had previously asked Nailers fighter Brad Drobot to teach him how to fight during practices, in case he ever needed to stick up for himself or his teammates.
Hirano has many people supporting him in his journey. Despite the time difference, his family watches his games online on ECHL.TV. He started a blog to document his day-to-day life and thoughts on his play.
"I want to show Japanese people everything in a different country – the culture, the hockey schedule," he said. "A lot of Japanese (people) support me, they send me messages encouraging me to keep on doing it. They always cheer for me, and that’s why I want to tell them my feelings."
It hasn't always been easy for Hirano on his journey. The culture, of course, is very different. In one blog entry, he describes his first time dressing up for Halloween for the Nailers' Halloween party. He was perplexed at the idea of it all. Buying an outfit for one night only? Why were the costumes so much money? What was he supposed to do with the costume afterwards?
In another entry, he describes the taunts he'd receive from opposing players during his time in the USHL. "Hiroshima." "Tsunami." "Kamikaze."
Hirano also surely took a pay cut to move here and chase his dreams. One hockey agency's website reports that the average Asia League salary ranges from 40,000 to 200,000 USD. ECHL salary ranges from 500 to 1,100 USD per week in season.
The director of hockey operations for the Tohoku Freeblades of the Asia Hockey League, Chris Wakabayashi, told the Chicago Tribune in 2015 that "a lot of the top players feel comfortable in Japan because they make OK money, more than they would make at an East Coast League team. A lot of guys don't have the courage."
The language barrier while playing in Sweden and America has also been a learning experience for him.
"I learned English just by hanging out with my teammates," said Hirano. "I couldn’t speak English when I played in Sweden after high school, so that was really tough. I couldn’t tell someone if I was having a problem, and even trying to explain things in hockey was difficult. When I was in Youngstown, teammates taught me English, and helped me fix my sentences."
Unlike some top major leagues in America, the USHL and ECHL do not have translators for their international players. While Hirano is becoming more comfortable with English now, it wasn't always as easy.
"When I was in Youngstown, that was so hard, because I didn’t know anything in English," he said. "If I couldn’t get it, I search for it on my phone or ask a teammate or my billet family in Youngstown. They help me a lot."
Now, Hirano's goals are clear. He wants to help the Nailers win at this level, and improve his weaknesses along the way.
"We want to win the Kelly Cup," he said of his and the Nailers' goals this season. "We know it’s not easy, so I want to get better at everything – my skating, playing smart hockey, scoring skills, and good defense, too. Also, we want to get great teamwork. If I can get these things, I can get better."
Hirano has a long road ahead of him if he is to achieve his goal of playing in the NHL. But he has already made huge leaps for the growth of Japanese hockey.
MORE FROM WHEELING
• Dec. 12: vs. Allen, 3-1 win
• Dec. 14: at Kalamazoo, 4-3 overtime loss
• Dec. 15: vs. Norfolk, 5-1 win
• Dec. 16: vs. Fort Wayne, 6-3 win
• Wednesday's meeting against the Allen Americans was the first meeting between the two teams since the 2016 Kelly Cup Final. Hirano opened the scoring in the first period, and the Americans tied the game in the second period. Saracino's power play goal gave the Nailers the lead in the third period, and Kevin Spinozzi scored an insurance tally to seal the win. Defenseman Danny Fick, the only remaining Nailer from the 2016 team, led the team with six shots. Jordan Ruby earned the win with 26 saves on 27 shots.
• Kalamazoo took a 2-0 lead only 5:11 into Friday's game, and the Nailers battled back with Spinozzi's seventh goal of the season, and Cedric Lacroix's third, a shorthanded tally. Kalamazoo scored another goal in the second period, and Michael Phillips' sixth of the season sent the game to overtime. Former Nailer Reid Gardiner scored the overtime winner for Kalamazoo. Ruby took the loss with 24 saves on 28 shots.
• A shorthanded goal from Zac Lynch and a tally from Brown gave the Nailers a 2-0 lead on Saturday. Norfolk scored in the second period, and goals from Brown, Spinozzi, and Hirano extended the Nailers' lead for the win. Matt O'Connor earned the win with 37 saves on 38 shots.
• Sunday's game saw six goals in the first period -- two from Fort Wayne, and Nailers goals from Saracino, Brown, and two from Renars Krastenbergs. Fort Wayne scored another goal in the second period, and goals from Brown and Lynch in the third period sealed the win. O'Connor earned the win with 35 saves on 38 shots.
• Even though he has been in Wilkes-Barre for three weeks, Troy Josephs‘ 12 goals in 13 games still leads the team. Brown leads the Nailers with 19 assists in 25 games. Saracino leads in points with 29 in 24 games.
• Lines and defense pairings from Sunday:
Nick Saracino -- Cam Brown -- Yushiroh Hirano
Renars Krastenbergs -- Zac Lynch -- Winston Day Chief
Alex Rauter -- Cedric Lacroix -- Michael Phillips
Frank Schumacher -- Danny Fick
Kevin Spinozzi -- Brien Diffley
Craig Skudalski -- Dane Birks
• After this week, the Nailers are in last place in the six-team Central Division with a record of 12-11-2, but are only one point out of third place. The Nailers’ power play dropped to 7th place in the league at 19 percent, and the penalty kill rose to 14th in the league at 84.5 percent.
• The Nailers will have a three-game series on the road against the Norfolk Admirals (12-13-1-1) with games on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
GOALS OF THE WEEK
Saracino and Spinozzi's goals Wednesday were massive shots:
Brown has been on a tear lately:
Lynch dropped to one knee for this goal:
Krastenbergs' first goal Sunday was this shot:
His second goal of the game was this no-look shot:
WHEELING FUN THING
The Nailers had their Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday:
— Wheeling Nailers (@WheelingNailers) December 16, 2018
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