Hockey in Japan

Something unusual happened in the National Hockey League on Sunday night. Los Angeles Kings prospect Yukata Fukufuji realized a lifelong dream on Saturday afternoon by becoming the first Japanese-born and raised player to sit on the bench for an NHL game.

"I was shaking" said Fukufuji of stepping onto the ice at Staples Center arena for the first time. "I can't believe it.”

Well its a nice story, he was quickly demoted to the ECHL late last night. Given that he currently is toiling in the ECHL, he's got a long ways to go before he ever gets to see the ice in the NHL.

Though he is the first player of Japanese upbringing to "make it" to the big leagues, hockey certainly has a long history in Japan.

Introduced by British troops, the Japan Ice Hockey Federation was created in 1929, and the country joined the International Ice Hockey Federation a year later. They have remained with the IIHF, although they were banned for political reasons following WWII. They were reinstated in 1951. With the incarnation of the Japan Hockey League in 1966, Japan has awarded a national championship since 1974.

Japan has competed in major international events ever since joining the IIHF, usually in lower division. Most notable memories include hosting the first ever NHL Olympics in 1998, a 20-1 loss to Peter Forsberg's Swedish team at the 1993 World Junior Championships, and participating in the 1936 Olympics with goaltender Teiji Honma shocking everyone by wearing a primative mask years before Jacques Plante.

This will surprise many - both Darryl Sutter and Randy Gregg got their professional careers started in Japan. Sutter skated for Oji Seishi Tomakomai, while Gregg skated for the Kokudo Keikaku Tokyo, better known as the Kokudo Bunnies. The Soviets had a heavy presence in Japanese hockey, often rewarding veterans by releasing them to play/coach in Japan. Vyacheslav Starshinov and Vladimir Shadrin are the two most notable Soviet stars released.

In addition to Honma, some of the more notable homegrown Japanese hockey players include:

Yoshio Hoshino - A forward who played more than a decade on the national team, he participated in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics. He was named the best forward in Pool C at the 1982 World Championships, scoring 7 goals and 22 points in 7 games.

Takeshi Iwamoto - National team goalie in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s, he participated in the 1980 Olympics. He was twice named best goaltender at the World Championships, 1978 (pool B) and 1982 (pool C)

Hideo Kurokawa - A national team forward during the 1960s and 1970s, he was a goal scoring hero at three World Championships and at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

Osamu Wakabayashi - Considered to be perhaps the best player in Japanese history, Osamu played in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics, he was an all star at three World Championships as well. He was named best forward at the 1979 Worlds (pool B)

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