Alex Ovechkin, Chicago Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, USHL, Washington Capitals
Yushiro Hirano has taken the term “road trip” to a new level.
The 20-year-old right wing left Hokkaido, Japan, last year to play hockey in Tingsryds, Sweden, some 4,683 miles away from his island home.
This year, Hirano’s pursuit of a National Hockey League career has taken him nearly 5,960 miles from home to Ohio, where he made history over the weekend as a member of the Youngstown Phantoms. Skating in the Phantoms’ season-opening 6-4 loss to Team USA Saturday, Hirano became the United States Hockey League’s first player born in Japan.
“I’m happy because I feel there is a responsibility for me to represent Japan well,” Hirano said when asked in an e-mail exchange about making the Phantoms roster. “I hope to grow the game in Japan and make everybody proud. I also want to play well enough to get to the professional ranks here in the United States.”
Joining the Phantoms capped an excellent hockey summer for Hirano. Before he tried out for the USHL team, he attended the Chicago Blackhawks development camp in July as a free agent invitee.
The Hawks learned about Hirano through Andrew Allen, who was a developmental goaltending coach in the Chicago organization before becoming the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie coach this season. Allen knew of Hirano because he served as goaltending coach and developmental coach for Japan’s national team.
The son of a former Team Japan player, Hirano compiled an impressive numbers in Japan and Sweden. He tallied 12 goals and 14 assists in 26 games for Tingsryds’ junior team last season.
He collected 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 games as captain for Japan’s Under-20 team playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championship in the D1B Division in 2014-15. He also notched 3 goals in 5 games for Team Japan’s men’s squad in the IIHF world championship D1A Division last season.
But Hirano – whose first name is sometimes spelled Yushiroh – wasn’t widely known in North America because Japan isn’t a hockey power. Its men’s team is 21st in IIHF rankings. The women’s team is ranked eighth internationally and competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The squad played hard in Russia, but didn’t win a game.
With a baseball and soccer-obsessed population of 127,103,388, Japan has 19,260 hockey players – 9,641 men, 6,996 juniors, and 2,623 women – playing on 120 outdoor rinks and 110 indoor ice sheets.
“It is still a minor sport in Japan, but more people have been watching and following hockey in the United States, which will only help the game,” Hirano told me.
So how did Hirano wind up in Youngstown? Tingsryds team management emailed Phantoms CEO and Co-Owner Troy Loney that Hirano might be worth a look.
“He received an email this summer and passed it along to our general manager about a young Japanese player who was looking to pay his own way to come over and try out,” Phantoms Head Coach John Wroblewski told me recently. “I guess there was a little bit of intrigue because he attended Chicago Blackhawks rookie camp as well this summer, but we knew nothing about him when the emails started coming around.”
It didn’t take long for the 6-foot, 200-pound Hirano to impress Wroblewski.
“He’s a big kid, very strong and sturdy,” he said. “He looks a lot like some of the pro players I dealt with the last few years. This leads into him being able to shoot the puck extremely hard. Tremendous accurate shot, very, very heavy shot. Those are the things that stuck out right away.”
But Wroblewski saw something more in Hirano than a big body and a shot. “His work ethic was the next thing, and the ability to make plays,” he said. “He has quite a bit of vision and the ability to make deft, subtle plays. He works extremely hard away from the puck. If he’s the last guy on a back-check he’s working as hard as if he has it (the puck) going forward.”
Hirano says he’s adjusting to life in North America on and off the ice just fine, though he cites “the language barrier” as the biggest challenge. His coach isn’t so sure about that.
“He’s sneaky, I think he might know a little more than he’s letting on,” Wroblewski said with a laugh. “He understands it very well, he does have to concentrate a little more than the next guy on it, but he does understand it quite nicely. I say that because he picks up on subtlties within drills that really aren’t explained very well. Either he’s really smart, knows a little bit more English than we think, or a combination of both. I think it’s the third scenario.”
The United States Hockey League is the nation’s only Tier 1 junior league and prides itself on being a pathway to college hockey for its players. More than 95 percent of USHL players receive an opportunity to play NCAA Division I hockey.
Hirano, however, is viewing his USHL stint in Youngstown as a stepping stone to the NHL. He hopes to someday play alongside or against his favorite players – Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos, or Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin.
“I’m nowhere close to the (NHL) level yet,” he told The Chicago Tribune in July. “I’d like to keep improving, but if I do get there, it’d be a huge impact for kids in Japan. They’d have a legitimate dream they could look up to and strive for.”
Wroblewski believes that Hirano’s dream isn’t an impossible one.
“In this short time, if his learning curve continues on this pace, on the degree it has thus far, there’s no telling how much he can get done here,” he said. “His straight ahead speed has to improve, there’s definitely a skating factor that the NHL desires, but his ability to play with others and put the puck in the net is pretty special.”