“It was our first time in Division IA, so they were tough games but it was a great experience for us,” said Taisetsu Ushio, who led the team with three goals and four points.
It looked like Japan might get a favourable result in its fourth game against Kazakhstan, in which they led 2-0 after the first period. However, the Kazakhs battled back to win 4-3, getting the game winner on the power play with 3:37 to go. Ushio scored two of Japan’s three goals.
Then in the last Japanese game, they kept it close for a while against France and trailed only 1-0 after two periods before the French pulled away to win 4-0.
“I thought we did pretty good the first two periods but the third, I don’t know, we just couldn’t hold it,” Ushio said. “We were behind and we had to try to score.”
For 16-year-old Ushio, whose December 2005 birthday means he can return for another U18 championship, it must be a disappointment that it will be in a lower division. However, he looks ahead to next year optimistically.
“I think we can win the Division IB and then come back up in two years and play these teams again,” he said confidently, even though he’ll have aged out by 2024. “We didn’t win here, but playing against these better teams gives us some confidence that we can win and we should win next year.”
Ushio’s confidence seems to come from his drive to succeed. He attributes the success he’s had in self-improvement to the past four seasons spent in North America, which began when he went there for the first time as a 12-year-old.
“Four years ago, we went to Quebec for the Peewee tournament,” Ushio said of the famous international event that has seen numerous future hockey stars appear over the decades. “That was my first time in Canada and it was a great experience and it got things started. I was in Kelowna, British Columbia (at the Pursuit of Excellence Academy) for three years and it was beautiful there. Then I went to Detroit and played for Little Caesars.”
About his season playing U16 at the program that has produced NHLers John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Modano and Doug Weight, among others, Ushio said: “It went pretty well. We didn’t make nationals, but it was an awesome experience. We went to Minnesota, Boston and stuff. It was pretty fun.”
Looking ahead, he said: “I hope to play juniors, I’m trying to go for the USHL for next year. Eventually, I hope to play NCAA for a Division I school.”
Hockey in North America is, according to Ushio “more skilled than in Japan, that’s for sure, and that was expected. It was difficult, but that’s what I wanted, to become a better player and I think I am, and I want to continue.”
Beyond junior and college hockey, Ushio plans to play professional hockey somewhere, but is keeping his options open as that’s still a few years away.
“There’s professional hockey in Japan,” he said. “It’s pretty good but my dream is the NHL. That’s a long way off of course. First, I hope to make the USHL and then D1, and then we’ll see.”
To date, there has only been one Japanese-trained player in the NHL, and that was goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, who appeared in four games for the Los Angeles Kings in the 2006/07 season. There’s never been a forward or defenceman, but that might change soon.
“There’s one guy, Yushiro Hirano, he plays for the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL and he’s pretty good,” said Ushio.
Hirano, a 26-year-old right winger who put up 12 points in 30 AHL games this season, should play for Japan next week at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Tychy, Poland. And it might not be too long before we see Ushio playing for the men’s national team as well.
“Yes, I hope so,” he said. “First should be under-20, but I would like to play with the men some day.”