With little more than a love for the game and a will to learn, Yuji Sawabe took to the ice for his first-ever organized game of hockey.
Yuji concedes he "knew nothing" about the sport at eight years old, having moved with his family only a few months earlier from Tokyo to the New York City commuter town of Scarsdale.
"I remember being really nervous," Yuji says. "I didn't fully understand the rules, but my coach was nice and explained everything to me."
Yuji had only watched his older sister, Yumi, skate and a Japanese friend, Yuto Ave, played hockey for a local team and encouraged him to try it. Yuji was sold after one public skate, signing up the next day for a house league/learn-to-skate program. His younger twin brothers, Shunsuke and Shosuke, also played.
'Sometimes I dream I might make [minor pro] or play a game or two in the NHL.' — 13-year-old Japanese defenceman Yuji Sawabe
"Right when I got on the ice I loved skating," he says, "The feeling of speed and the cold wind in my face."
Five years later, Yuji is a defenceman for the Westchester (County) Express, a Tier 1 (triple-A) minor Bantam travel team. However, he isn't a full-time player this season after his dad was ordered in late June to return to his company's headquarters in Tokyo.
But Yuji's dream didn't end with the family's move.
"Sometimes I dream I might make [minor pro] or play a game or two in the NHL," says Yuji, a mature-sounding 13-year-old. "But I think I have to work harder and train more."
That shouldn't be a problem for a boy known in past off-seasons to work on his skills for up to eight hours daily. If someone could be on the ice 24/7, says Express head coach Scott Sanders, Yuji would be that person.
"Yuji is hockey, hockey, hockey," says Sanders, a native of Mississauga, Ont., who remained in the United States for work after playing four years of Division I hockey at Boston University in the mid-1980s. "Last season, he'd be on the ice with the middle school team and practice with us the same day. That's how he got so good.
"He's a fantastic player and getting better and better. The first thing I noticed was his shot. He's just so solid on his skates, too, a great skater, and has very good hockey sense. The way he's improved at everything and the way he sees the game … you'll see him play D1 somewhere. After that, anything's possible."
Tokyo goalie Yutaka Fukufuji, who played 96 minutes in four appearances for the Los Angeles Kings in the 2006-07 season and ex-Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks centre Ryan O'Marra (also from Tokyo) are the only two players born in Japan who have played in the NHL, according to hockey-reference.com. Montreal drafted defenceman Hiroyuki Miura (Kushiro City) in 1992 but he never played a game for the Canadiens.
Yusuke Sawabe is disappointed with the minor hockey system in Tokyo, saying ice time is limited and there are few competitive teams in Yuji's age bracket. His son has only played seven games since the family's return to Japan and practices are at least a 40-minute drive away in Yokohama City.
"We have only four ice rinks in Tokyo," says Yusuke, who works for a trading and investment company. "Even in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, we have only nine rinks.
"If Yuji wants to continue playing hockey, there is only one club team and the skill level isn't very high."
'I want him to play Division I'
Yusuke would prefer his son continue his hockey development in the U.S., and has talked with Sanders about having Yuji attend a college prep school in the New York/Connecticut area next fall for ninth grade. Sanders says the five-foot-nine, 145-pound defenceman would excel in such an environment, given his athletic talent and smarts in the classroom.
"I want Yuji to grow from an academic perspective and as a hockey player," his dad says. "I want him to play Division I and eventually make the Japanese national men's team. We need to make the national team strong enough to make the Olympics [which it hasn't since gettting an automatic berth as the host in 1998 in Nagano]."
Yusuke is so committed to seeing Yuji reach his athletic potential that he's willing to fly his son solo to various tournaments across North America and elsewhere to get noticed by scouts. For a recent tournament in Toronto, Yusuke used his air miles to cover the cost of his son's flight and saved on hotel money by having Yuji room with a teammate.
In early August, Yuji made the 10-hour trek from Tokyo to join a team of mostly Victoria-area triple-A players in Moscow at the Tretiak Cup. Yusuke said that trip cost him about $5,000 US for the flight, jersey, tournament fees, meals and team activities.
'Coachable, likable, a good teammate'
Later this month, Yuji and his Express teammates will play at a prep school development tournament in Massachusetts.
"It should be a good eye-opener for those coaches to see him play," says Sanders, who also coached Yuji last year and kept him on the Express roster this season in case the family's return to Japan was short-lived. "He's a great kid — coachable, likable, a good teammate."
Yuji, whom his coach points out likes to play video games and fool around like others his age, also enjoys reading and math at school "because it's problem solving." During his hockey travels, Yuji has appreciated the opportunity "to see the world" and further develop his on-ice skills.
"I like constantly working and trying to get better. I really enjoy making a play and skating by an opponent," says Yuji, who lists Patrick Kane ("he has really nice hands") and Erik Karlsson ("he's really good at going on rushes") as his favourite NHL players.
"In Japan, hockey is really formal. In the U.S. and Canada, there's a special bond between the players and the coaches, going to team dinners and hanging out at hotels. You can create memories that last a lifetime."