By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV
ST. LOUIS PARK (WCCO) — Three weeks after their world was so horribly shaken by a massive earthquake and then a devastating tsunami, 14 Japanese boys found their escape — on a sheet of Minnesota ice.
“We’re all really lucky to be here,” said 10-year-old Kazuma Matsuo.
He has the same dream as many North American hockey players his age, to someday making it into the National Hockey League. Problem is that Kazuma is an aspiring young player, living in a country not known for hockey.
“I think I have to like get my pace up to get in the NHL, because I really want to get in the NHL,” adds Kazuma.
So, what better way to learn the game than from a former NHL star? Minnesotan Shjon Podein played in the NHL for 11 years and then coached hockey in Japan. There, he met Kaku Sato, coach of the Japanese peewee team. Together, the two former players arranged the trip as a way to grow the game back in Japan.
“They are so happy and so excited,” said Kaku.
In Japan, hockey isn’t the sport that it is here in Minnesota. In fact, figure skating uses the majority of the ice time in Tokyo’s five indoor ice arenas. That’s five arenas for a city of 30 million people. If the boys are lucky, they’ll get to skate about one hour a week.
“These kids, they get out there and they’ve had more ice in the last three days than they’ve had in the last two months back home in Japan. So, to have them come out here and see their improvement and smiles on their faces, it’s a blast,” explained Podein.
Earlier in the week, the team faced a team from St. Louis Park in a scrimmage. While they were beat 8-0, they say it was a good experience to see how skilled American boys are at the same age. They will fit in another scrimmage against peewees from Podein’s hometown of Rochester before heading back to Japan.
Aside from the opportunity to play and practice the Japanese players took in a Minnesota Wild practice and game. Imagine the thrill of getting pucks handed to them from Wild players before they left the ice.
In a country hit by so much bad news lately, it’s refreshing to see the young hockey players grow their passion for a game they so dearly love, in the heart of hockey’s hotbed.
“Our passion is, hopefully, for one of these kids in the future to make it into the NHL,” said assistant coach Koichi Shijima.