Japan and St. Louis Park are about 14 hours apart by plane, but a week ago, the two distant places were separated only by a few red and blue lines on a sheet of ice.
For the second straight year, Japanese youth hockey players made the long trip over to the for scrimmages against Park teams—a connection made possible by St. Louis Park’s well-traveled varsity coach, Shjon Podein.
After an 11-year National Hockey League career, Podein finished his playing days by spending the 2005-06 season as a coach/player for the Nikkō Ice Bucks of the Asia Hockey League.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Podein said.
While there, Podein developed friendships with assistant coach Hiroki Wakabayshi and player Kaku Sato. Fast-forward to 2011, and Wakabayshi and Sato—now coaches in the Smile and Dream Japanese youth hockey program, which pulls in players ages 11-14 from across the country—called on their old friend. They wanted their players to see the American game, and they wanted them to learn from Podein.
“He knows what it takes to win and get to the next level,” Wakabayshi said of Podein.
Added Sato, through a translator: “He’s got a great hockey career, so everybody respects him. And even off the ice, he has such strong leadership.”
The two Japanese coaches hope Podein’s knowledge and experience rub off on the 17 players they brought to St. Louis Park from March 29 to April 3. And they also hope this program helps spur interest in the game back home.
Japan is largely known for baseball, but the country has a hockey tradition that dates back nearly 100 years, Wakabayshi noted. But these days, numbers aren’t as big as coaches would hope. The economy is down, hockey equipment is costly and many rinks were damaged by last year’s earthquake.
For those who do take up the game, Wakabayshi said he wants them to know what could be out there for them. During their trip to Minnesota, the Japanese youngsters saw the University of Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena, as well as the Xcel Energy Center.
“For them, it’s kind of shocking to see the real hockey world,” Wakabayshi said.
The coach’s goal is to get his players—now and in the future—to think about hockey opportunities in the U.S., possibly as soon as they reach high school. While it may not happen immediately, Podein said he’d welcome any Japanese players who might come to St. Louis Park to play high school hockey.
“I’ll take them,” he said. “We could be groundbreaking.”
For now, the short-term goal is to continue the annual scrimmages and build on the Japan-St. Louis Park relationship.
“I think they are very, very excited,” Wakabayshi said of his players coming to the U.S. “We hope this is going to grow, and we hope we have a chance to bring more kids.”
Podein said he could even envision a world tournament of sorts forming, held at the Rec Center each year, that would bring in kids from Japan and other countries.
“Anytime you can bring something back to the community that can help kids grow, it’s something you have to do,” he said. “Everything is becoming global anyways.”