Massive earthquake halts Asia League playoff finals

KORIYAMA, Japan – Members of the Tohoku Free Blades hockey team were getting ready to begin practice at the Bandai Atami Ice Arena on Friday afternoon when their session was cut short by the largest earthquake to hit Japan in recorded history.

As the facility began to shake violently, players and coaches made a mad scramble to escape to safety outside. Everyone made it out of the building, which sustained heavy damage as a result of the tremblor and although earthquakes are a regular occurrence throughout Japan, it quickly became obvious that this was something out of the ordinary.

“I will tell you it was terrifying when pieces of concrete started falling and lights were breaking inside the arena,” Free Blades defenseman Brad Farynuk wrote in an e-mail to his hometown newspaper, the Vernon Star.

The team was allowed to re-enter the arena for a short time about an hour after the main quake in order to grab their clothing and gear. The Arena walls are cracked and chunks of cement and other debris now litter the building.

Concrete and other debris at the Bandai Atami Ice Arena/Photo Credit: Masahito Suzuki

Concrete and other debris at the Bandai Atami Ice Arena/Photo Credit: Masahito Suzuki

Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, is located in the Tohoku region on the island of Honshu, Japan’s largest. It is about 80 miles South of Sendai, near the quake’s epicenter.

Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH), which represents seven teams from Japan, South Korea and China, including the Free Blades, postponed the first three games of its 2011 playoff finals as a result of the quake and the resulting tragedy.

The Free Blades and South Korea’s Anyang Halla, the 2010 league champions, were originally scheduled to begin the best-of-five series on Saturday night at the Bandai Atami Arena, with games two and three to follow there on Sunday and Tuesday.

A series of aftershocks triggered an explosion on Saturday at the  Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, located about 30 miles North of Kuriyama, prompting the government to expand an evacuation order to affect 170,000 people in the plant’s vicinity. The league is reportedly considering moving the series to South Korea, where games four and five, if necessary, were already scheduled.

Anyang Halla reported that all of their athletes were safe and that they were able to return to South Korea via Asiana Airlines, according to their Twitter feeds. The Free Blades were forced to use their bus as a temporary shelter as their hotel had cracked walls and no one was allowed inside for safety reasons.

Farynuk reported that the team was stuck in a countryside motel, unable to drive back to Hachinohe, their home city , located over 260 miles to the North. Landslides block sections of the highway and at least five bridges were washed away by the tsunami that followed Friday’s quake.

Brad Farynuk/Photo Credit: Tohoku Free Blades

Brad Farynuk/Photo Credit: Tohoku Free Blades

Farynuk’s wife Kathy, who is safe and reportedly staying at a shelter, posted a description of a previous earthquake that hit Hachinohe on her blog Wednesday afternoon.

“During lunch, Hachinohe shook due to a 7.2 earthquake,” Farynuk wrote. “The epicenter was off the coast, so our city felt a ‘5’. I think it was the longest and strongest quake I’ve ever felt. I had just gotten out of the shower so I started to panic because I wanted to get dressed in case I had to run outside. Luckily there’s no damage reported on the news and we’re okay.”

Farynuk went on to describe the tremors that followed after the main quake.

“In the two hours following, our apartment shook five more times! The aftershocks weren’t nearly as scary as the initial one. Later in the afternoon and evening we had six more small earthquakes. This day has been crazy.”

Little did she know that Hachinohe would be rocked by a magnitude 8.9 quake less than 48 hours later, followed by a tsunami that would cause tremendous damage to the port city.

There is no further information on when the ALIH finals will resume but the Anyang Halla website states that more information will be updated shortly.

Contact the author at robert.keith@prohockeynews.com

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