TOKYO, Japan – In light of the incredible human tragedy taking place on the island nation of Japan as a result of nature’s destructive forces, the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH) championship series couldn’t be more insignificant.
The best-of-five series was set to begin on Friday between the defending ALIH champions, South Korea’s Anyang Halla and Japan’s Tohoku Free Blades. Anyang Halla went 23-9-4 (67 points), placing fourth in the league. They upset the first place Oji Eagles three games to one, earning the opportunity to defend the league’s championship trophy.
The Free Blades, who finished fifth in the seven-team league in their inaugural season, followed up with a 22-8-6 record (36 points), good for a third place regular season finish. In their first ALIH playoff appearance, the team ultimately defeated the second place Nippon Paper Cranes three games to two, earning an opportunity to take on the reigning champions in the finals.
The first three games of the best-of-five series in Japan were immediately cancelled soon after Friday afternoon’s megathrust earthquake struck. The teams were reportedly in discussion with the league about starting the series with the two games previously scheduled to take place in South Korea (originally games 4 and 5) on March 19th and 20th, but it was agreed that those games would also be cancelled.
For now, the future of the series has been placed on indefinite hold and whether it will be played at all remains an open question. For the people of Japan, as well as the ALIH, there are more important priorities at hand than playing hockey.
The quake, which was centered off the east coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and was quickly deemed the largest in the country’s recorded history.
The earthquake hit at 2:46 pm local time, 14 minutes before the Tohoku Free Blades were scheduled to begin their practice session at the Kendai Atami Ice Arena in Koriyama, just south of the Sendai, the city most affected by the disaster.
Some of the players, including Canadian-born defenseman Brad Farynuk, had already taken the ice.
“It was terrifying when pieces of concrete started falling and lights were breaking inside the arena,” Farynuk told his hometown newspaper, the Vernon (B.C.) Star. “Everyone on the team is okay,”
Tohoku head coach Chris Wakabayashi told Martin Merk, in an interview for the International Ice Hockey Federation website.
“We were very fortunate. There were players with their skates crawling out of the rink out into open space. There were some concrete blocks falling from the ceiling, but no one was hurt.”
About an hour after the quake, the team was able to- re-enter the arena to gather their clothes, gear and other personal effects. Unable to return to their hotel, due to damage from the quake, the team was stuck on their bus for several hours before space at another space was made available to them.
With electricity and other services unavailable and little, if any cellular or Internet service, the stranded team made attempts to contact loved ones and friends in Hachinohe, the port city where the team is based, located about 400 kilometers north of Koriyama and about two hours north of Sendai.
To make matters worse, Koriyama is located about 70 kilometers west of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where a hydrogen explosion on Saturday prompted an evacuation order for over 200,000 people in the area due to the release of radioactive contaminants and the fear of a possible meltdown.
Due to heavy damage to roads and bridges, the Free Blades had to wait until Monday to begin their return home to Hachinohe. Meanwhile, the Asiana Airlines flight carrying Anyang Halla players and coaches touched down at the Sendai Airport about an hour before its tarmac was submerged by the tsunami that followed the main trembler.
After boarding their bus, the team stopped for a meal before making the 80-mile bus trip south to Koriyama.
“We felt a huge shake while we were having lunch,” Anyang Halla scout and staff member Samuel Kim said. “It’s something our players and staff have never experienced before. We also felt earthquakes later all night long in the hotel. It was pretty scary.”
The team was able to return home on Saturday, departing from Fukushima airport, about 12 miles Southeast of Koriyama.
“We were able to get tickets and everyone made it back safely,” Kim said. “We were really lucky in the end, both on the arrival day and when we flew off from Fukushima just before the explosion at the nuclear plant.”
Whatever the ultimate decision is regarding the future of the finals series, members of both the Anyang Halla and Tohoku Free Blades organizations are prepared to accept the outcome of their season with honor, knowing that at the very least, the two teams proved to be the best in the ALIH in 2010-11.
“The number of casualties increases as time goes by, and probably more than 40,000 people are dead,” Anyang Halla General Manager Seung-Jun Yang said. “When things like this happen, it’s time to think about people’s safety, not hockey.”
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