on the ice

Yokohama Grits coach Mike Kennedy guides his team to achieve in sports and business

Hockey isn’t a sport that gets judged on degree of difficulty. But if it were, the Yokohama Grits would be getting some extra points added to their scores.

The team launched at the beginning of the pandemic in February 2020. But what makes them unique is that Grits players all work full-time jobs that they balance with their professional hockey careers in Asia League Ice Hockey.

For some added grit, they offer about third of the salary that other teams can. Consequently, they haven’t been able to amass the talent that some of the other teams in the league can muster. However, for players that choose the Yokohama Grits, this means they enjoy the benefit of growing their business careers — while still playing professionally. 

For Yokohama Grits head coach Mike Kennedy, these are all challenges that he’s taken in stride as he’s helped the team develop and improve — on and off the ice. 


For Kennedy, the first hurdle was wrestling with the difficulties that the pandemic brought with it. He came to Japan in early 2020, for a planned two-game series and a month-long training session. Although the Covid-19 outbreak put a halt to those games, the season was set to begin in September, and Kennedy, who had since returned to Canada, was meant to return to begin the team’s training in August. However, due to Covid-related delays in paperwork, he wasn’t able to make it back here until the middle of October. 

Kennedy explained that all his contact with the team had to be virtual at the time, and the team was struggling to compete in the Asia League. “So from August up to the end of my quarantine period, I had to watch my team on Zoom. They were playing their games under the assistant coach. And we’re losing games nine–nothing, six–nothing. When we even scored a goal, guys were really, really happy.” 

By the time Kennedy was able to physically be there, the first season continued to be a struggle. “We managed to play a Covid-shortened season of 18 games, with zero wins. Over the course of our first season, we lost one game in overtime. We lost six games by one goal, we lost six games by two or three goals, and in six more we got crushed. But the good news is they got crushed mostly before I got here. So you could see the progress.”

Kennedy quickly recognized that one of the key areas where the Grits could improve was something that generally is neglected in Japanese hockey on a national level: defense. This unheralded side of the game doesn’t get the glory, but it can yield results, Kennedy explained. “It’s pretty much the only advantage the Grits have. And it’s not fun. So my team knows that every day I will teach them that the only way we can compete in this league is if I continue to develop their defensive skills. The fun part about developing a defensive skill is you have to have an offense playing against you, so we’re covering offense too. But my focus is on the defense.”

He hopes that, by next season, he might be able to add more offensive focus to practices if the team shows further improvement. But Kennedy says that fans are noticing the tough defense. “Our fans look at the game and they go, ‘OK, the Grits get into these formations, like army formations.’ And we don’t forecheck as much and we don’t do some other things as much, but we defend like crazy as a group of five guys, and we keep the score close. And you know, if we can keep the score close, we have a chance.

In fact, seeing this steady improvement is part of what makes it all worthwhile for Kennedy. “There’s no greater satisfaction in being a coach than taking the weakest team and bringing them up. You can see it happening before your eyes. Boom. Now they’re close in all games. Now teams are only winning by one and empty net goals. You can see that progress. So for me, the challenge was one of the biggest, brightest pieces of why I wanted to come here.”

“If we can keep the score close, we have a chance.”


And part of the reason that Kennedy is such a good fit for the Grits is his own experience in sports and business. His playing career has included stints with the NHL’s Dallas Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, after which he played in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany’s top professional hockey league. During his time there, he helped the Munich Barons win the league championship. 

Kennedy says that this overseas experience was instrumental in helping him adjust to coaching in the Asia League. “You can’t have just played in the NHL and come here to coach; it wouldn’t work. Playing in Europe was a really eye-opening experience, just in coming from the NHL to experience different styles, philosophies and languages. There are a whole bunch of different things that happen in the game.” Kennedy has also coached at the University of Calgary, as well as at the youth level. 

Equally important to Kennedy’s track record is his time in business — he worked in office leasing as a realty advisor back in Canada. This helps him give advice to the players when it comes to the other key element of the Yokohama Grits’ experience: balancing a full-time job (or being a university student) with the demands of playing professional hockey. Kennedy explained: “I say to my players that they have three careers, and in order they are family, work and hockey. I am a coach that understands this basic concept, and if we can keep the first two working well, then hockey can be an enjoyable experience for them.”

From the beginning, this part of the Grits’ life was something that Takashi Mikoshiba, the co-founder of the team, had insisted on. The connection between Mikoshiba and Kennedy goes back decades, to when the two went to high school together in British Columbia. Kennedy said that Mikoshiba, who came back to Japan after high school and played hockey for Keio University’s team before moving into the world of finance, was someone he has stayed in touch with throughout his life. Even though they weren’t in constant contact, Kennedy said that he wasn’t surprised that the friendship which started back in high school led to him coming to coach the Grits. 

Kennedy recognizes that hockey is a secondary sport in Japan, and feels that the model that Mikoshiba has established could be emulated by other teams, given its appeal to the Grits’ players. “In some of the other clubs, maybe not all the players need to have full-time jobs, but half of them could be working towards a career outside of hockey. I think that Takashi has done a good job of getting players from around the league intrigued with the idea.”

The players, who come from a variety of backgrounds, include those who are just getting started, and those who have established careers in areas such as medical sales, or at large  companies like Under Armour, Prudential, Salesforce, or SoftBank. 

“I truly believe there’s a big gap between
where hockey is right now and where it can go.”

This means that the up-and-coming players on the Grits seek advice from their senior teammates about hockey and their careers, Kennedy says: “The youngest guys look up to those guys not only for their role on the ice, but for how they’re doing in the working world. Most teammates [in other teams] don’t talk about this kind of stuff; they might be talking to each other about what movie they’re going to watch. But my guys are asking the older guys, ‘How did you ask your boss for a raise?’ or ‘How do I consider going to a new company?’ and ‘What can a recruiter do for me?’”

This focus on combining work and sport also applies to how Kennedy speaks to his players — and how he teaches them to think of themselves. “All of my players are CEOs — they’re CEOs of themselves and their families, and our job as a team is to help them be even better at that. Some guys don’t need as much help. They’re in their 30s, they’ve progressed nicely, but then some of the younger guys are looking for career advice. So I embed a bit of business talk in all the conversations that we have. And I encourage them to take a task-oriented approach to everything, so they can quickly get the most important things done in their life every day.”

“I would say I’m truly proud of my relationships
with a lot of the players.”


This focus also applies to the efficiency with which practices are run. The Grits usually practice three times a week — in the morning, before work — and because they don’t have as much time on the ice, practices need to be laser focused. Kennedy says he makes the most of it. “I would say we practice about 70 per cent of the time that other teams do. What we do is plan to get a lot done in a short amount of time, because I’m very respectful of every minute we practice. A lot of teams are able to float around; they have time to do this and that. I get 75 minutes, three times a week. We crush it. And my players say: ‘These are the hardest practices we’ve ever had in our lives.’”

Despite the challenges that come with launching a fledgling team made up of working professionals in the middle of the pandemic, Kennedy gets tremendous satisfaction from his connection with the athletes on the team: “I would say I’m truly proud of my relationships with a lot of the players. They’re deeper than I’ve ever had with any coach of mine. I’ve had many players drop by my house to ask me questions about life outside hockey. Being invited over for dinner is something no coach had ever done for me. I like doing that. I like to keep developing the relationship. And this is something I want to harness and take forward to a higher level. This doesn’t need to be just for the Grits; you’re coaching a human, not just a hockey player.”

Kennedy has also been grateful for the connection with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (CCCJ), which has been a source of fans and social connections. He admits that he wouldn’t know a third of the people he does in Japan without his links to the CCCJ. And the fans who make it to the games recognize the team’s effort and tenacity. “The CCCJ provides many fans for us, and being good friends with [CCCJ Chair David Anderson] is one thing, but his introduction to many people around Tokyo allows me to have an in-depth look at what [the fans] are seeing and feeling. They know we’re the underdog; they know we’re the team that won no games last year. In fact, about a month ago I had a group from the top guys at Fidelity come to a game and we were playing the top team — a team would beat us nine–nothing all the time. Well, they beat us by a goal. 

“And the people who came to see us said, ‘Oh my God, you guys. Yeah, we can just see you working your butts off out there to defend, defend, defend.’ Because that’s also equally rewarding as a fan. You don’t need to see goal after goal. You need to see a team working their tails off. And that’s really what the Grits are all about if you look at the name. We’ve got to be gritty to keep going.”

“These are the hardest practices we’ve ever had
in our lives.”


As one of the few foreign coaches in the Asia League, Kennedy’s insights into the way hockey is played in Japan — and how it needs to change — have put him in a position that he’s happy to occupy: disruptor. Through his connections with the CCCJ, he has noticed something similar in the position of many Canadians doing business here in Japan, and encourages them to keep at it. “If you have big ideas,” he proclaims, “keep going for them and keep disrupting, keep challenging. Even for me, though all of the ideas I’ve tried to put into place haven’t gone as smoothly as I wanted, a lot of people started thinking about them. So I want to continue to encourage people that are running their companies to just keep pushing — push the boundaries for more creativity. Hockey is a creative, fast-paced game and I am constantly scouring for innovative concepts and anything that might give my team a competitive edge. I think if CCCJ members can bring a bit of a worldly view to business and get to know their peers and team members by having them over for dinner, that’s a way of being a disruptor. Get to know your people organically. And be open to crazy, new, unconventional ideas that may give your company an edge.” 

Kennedy isn’t sure exactly how many years he’ll be with the Grits in the long run, but wherever his coaching career takes him in the future, he’ll always make room for the team that he helped get its start. “I will support them with everything I know. I’ll come back to Yokohama and help with their lead up to the season; I’ll give them the plans of what I’ve been doing at other coaching jobs — anything I can to help this team,” he says. “And if they want to share that with the rest of Japan, I say go for it. 

“But I will forever be grateful to them for allowing me to experiment and be a catalyst for a bit of disruption in Japanese hockey. And I truly believe there’s a big gap between where hockey is right now and where it can go. You’ve got to treat these guys like CEOs. And once you do, you’ll be shocked at how they’ll perform.” 

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