Aito Iguchi – Japanese hockey sensation

Pavel Barber’s latest video about young Japanese ice hockey prodigy Aito Iguchi has gone viral.

The eleven year old is way ahead of his contemporaries in skating ability, stick handling and “hockey smarts” to name but three attributes he excels at. Those 1.2 million to have watched the eleven year old’s skills, have seen he’s not a greedy player either, as he often makes plays to set–up a team mate for a goal. A lot of people are surprised that such an exciting young talent should be Japanese. I however am not so shocked at this development having seen the latest crop of Japanese youngsters play first hand.

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I was fortunate enough to cover the IIHF Men’s U20 2014 Division 1 Group B, hosted by GB in Scotland. Japan contested in that group and were an exciting team to view for media and fans alike.

They have a real passion for the game and love to attack at every opportunity. The majority of the team have speed to burn and defensemen were always jumping into the play. This led to some exciting hockey and high scoring games, but ultimately losing every encounter this time around. Without high end goaltending and a defense that preferred offense to defense, they suffered defeats despite laying up well against the best team in the group. Blowing a lead against France in the opening game, before another one goal loss to eventual champions Italy. They allowed a compact Ukraine team to build a three goal lead before almost mounting an incredible comeback. An 8-7 loss to Kazakhstan was perhaps the best illustration of their issues right now. They lead 6-4 going into the third period but allowed their opponents to score four straight goals.

A battle with GB to avoid relegation went the way of the hosts who were able to keep Japan at arms length and neutralise their speed, allied with a fine performance from Adam Goss between the pipes.

Some of those player’s to impress in that tournament are already playing hockey overseas or have interest from clubs.

Yu Hikosaka led the team in points scoring and was always a threat to the opposition. He’s a winger who’s played in junior teams for EC Salzburg and is currently with Topeka RoadRunners of the NAHL, where’s he been for the last two seasons.

Kento Suzuki is still playing his hockey in Japanese for Chuo University but he impressed with an eye for goal. Led the team with four markers but could easily have had more. Considering this was his first tournament at the U20 level and only the second international tournament of his career, he stood out.

Yuki Miura was playing his second international tournament of the year having registered six points in five outings for the U18, which was his first taste of hockey on the big stage. Another four points for him stepping up a level was impressive for the then 17 year old, who played without any fear. Now 18, he’s with HC Kladno U20 (Czech) and is currently their second highest goal scorer with ten to his name.

Jun Hashimoto is one of the more experienced defenseman and at six feet one of the taller members of the team. Another who’s taken the chance to play a season abroad, specifically in Europe with Mora’s U20 team. He’s now with Oji Eagles of the Asia League.

The aforementioned players can look to Yushiroh Hirano who at 19 years old is playing his first season outside of Japan. With Swedish third tier team Tingsryds AIF , Hirano started the season with the U20 team and has been a point per game player. Impressing so much to have represented the Men’s team once and recorded an assist in that single outing.

A year young than Hirano is Shoma Izumi, who is with MHL team Kristall Berdsk.

At the other end of the scale is experienced defenseman Shinya Yanadori, who at 27 is also playing his first season in Europe with Danish team Esbjerg.

Akira Tagawa has spent the last two seasons in the Finnish third tier and is now with HC Panter in Estonia’s top league.

We should not forget goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji who played in the NHL as recently as 2007. This was partly due to a spate of injuries in the Los Angeles Kings organisation but Fukufuji was good with the Reading Royals and then even better in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs that season. It was a seven year stay in North American hockey for the Japanese net minder that should provide hope for those looking to follow in his footsteps.

Japan is a country that has made giant leaps in hockey terms.

At international level the Men’s team have only been competing since 1973, with the junior teams not joining the fray until the mid 1980’s. Not forgetting the ladies who only entered the international play in 1990. The Men’s team is ranked 21 in the world and have been established there for a while.

Not bad at all for a nation that has a very small pool of players to pick from.

A failing “Japan Ice Hockey League” was replaced in 2003 with the “Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH)“ and now incorporates teams from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Sang Mu and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk joining in the past two seasons have taken the league to nine teams and increased competition.

It should be no shock then to see a wonder kid like Aito Iguchi seemingly rise from nowhere. Japan has placed a great deal of focus on it’s youth system having had to start from scratch and it’s already proving successful in such a relatively short space of time. They have a great deal of stability in their set-up, with Canadian born coach Mark Mahon having been a part of their system since 2003.

The Japanese mind-set is not to settle for second best so don’t be surprised if we see more Aito Iguchi’s in the next decade or so, and perhaps even someone following Fukufuji’s lead into North American hockey.

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