TOKYO, Japan – With just 11 days to go before the start of the 2010-11 season, Asia League Ice Hockey teams are wrapping up pre-season contests, determining final rosters and preparing for battle while continuing to recover from the effects of the global financial crisis as well as diminished interest among followers of the sport in the Far East.
Just seven years ago, the future of professional ice hockey in two countries with long histories of competition on the ice was in doubt. Both Japan and Korea trace their involvement in the sport back as early as the 1920’s.
The Japan Ice Hockey League, established in 1966, was o riginally a five-team league that expanded to six in 1974. 20 years later, economic conditions led to the reduction of the number of teams to four. Meanwhile, the Korean Ice Hockey League, under similar circumstances, saw its three teams reduced to just one.
A solution for the sport’s demise in the region was put forth by Shoichi Tomita, a former goaltender in Japan’s top league who had served as the Japan Ice Hockey League’s last president and was the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Vice-President from Japan .
Working alongside other officials from Japan and South Korea, it was determined that a new multi-national Asian league would best serve as the impetus for promoting hockey and developing players in order to make the countries more competitive on the international stage.
The surviving franchises from Japan and Korea were the forerunners, initially forming a five-team league. This included South Korean champion Halla Winia and Japanese teams Nikko Ice Bucks, Nippon Paper Cranes, Oji Paper and the Japanese champion, Kokudo Tokyo.
The league expanded to as many as four countries (including Russia in 2004–05) and nine teams (2005–06) but has settled at seven teams from three countries – four from Japan (Nippon Paper Cranes, Oji Eagles, Nikko Ice Bucks and Tohoku Free Blades), two from South Korea (Anyang Halla and High 1) and one from China (China Dragon).
Until recently, the Asian League has been dominated by its Japanese teams. Of all the countries in the Far East, the Japanese easily have the greatest influence on the sport, with the most systematic organization, the greatest ability to support professional clubs and the largest pool of players to draw from (21,027 registered players – the eighth-largest number worldwide).
South Korea on the other hand, has only 1,247 registered players and is stymied by mandatory military service, which takes players away from the game while in their prime.
Despite that, the hard work and focus of the ever-improving South Korean hockey program culminated in the crowning of the first-ever non-Japanese ALIH champion, Anyang Halla this past April.
Throughout its short history, there have been many changes in the make-up of the league as well as the NHL-style rules governing the game.
Last year, two-time ALIH champion (2005, 2006) and 13-time Japan League champion Seibu Prince Rabbits, considered by many to be the country’s most successful modern-era franchise, folded after 37 seasons when its parent company, Prince Hotels Inc., was unable to find a new sponsor to buy the club.
Fortunately, an expansion club, Tohoku Free Blades, managed to hire enough players and imports to join the league in time for the beginning of the 2009-10 season.
Meanwhile, the NHL’s San Jose Sharks ended their two-season collaboration with the China Sharks and recalled the coaches and players they had sent to help develop the team. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association took over the team and brought in new players and coaches. The team also changed its name from China Sharks to China Dragon.
Other recent changes involved the reduction of the post-season from a best-of-seven to best-of-five format and the number of playoff qualifying teams was reduced from five to four and a fourth on-ice official was added. Also, the number of foreign-born players allowed was reduced from five to four.
Those connected with Asia League Ice Hockey are enthusiastic about the recent surge of interest in their sport and are intent on working to develop a league on par with North America and Europe, where the world’s top players will one day hope to compete.
2010 Playoff MVP Brock Radunske, who plays for the defending league champion Anyang Halla, is excited about the future of the Asian League and encourages other Western players to consider coming to the Far East to play.
“Players need to evaluate where they are in their careers, and if the time is right for a new experience, I would tell them all the good things this league has to offer,” Radunske said. “You get a chance to travel and see parts of the world (where) you probably never considered you would be playing hockey. My wife teaches English part-time as a second language, and with how the Anyang Halla treat our family, it has made it an easy decision to play in Asia for the next couple years.”
The league held their annual general meeting on August 27th in Tokyo where it was announced that league chairman Iwao Nakashima has retired. Hiroshi Takano was named his successor. Takano will oversee the next chapter in the history of the ALIH, which begins when the puck drops to open the new season on September 18th.
The seven participating teams will play a combined 126 games over the course of six months, after which, four teams atop the final regular season standings will advance to the playoffs and will vie for the title of Asia League Champion. Both the semi-finals and finals will feature a best-of-five series format which will begin in late February and conclude in March.
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Photos courtesy of Asia League Ice Hockey