Tokyo Canadians marks 25 years
Not enough can be said about the fellowship that is formed through the community of sport. It brings together people — from various occupations, nations, political affiliations and lifestyles.
This was made abundantly clear after an evening with some members of the Tokyo Canadians. This amateur ice hockey team has, in various incarnations, been playing since 1995. At an izakaya in Shimokitazawa, I had a chance to find out how the team got started, something about their travels and charity endeavours, and what the team means to individual members.
Joji Hiratsuka, one of the earliest members of the team, came to Japan from St. Albert, Alberta, in 1984. Now well established in the world of finance, his first job was at his uncle’s company. He also ended up playing American football with a Japanese steel company. But hockey was his true love from an early age, and he quickly found his way onto a Japanese hockey team, and played with them from 1984 to 1995. In the leagues he was involved with, he got to know many other Canadian players who were playing on other teams.
As Hiratsuka explains, in 1995, a group of Canadians, in part connected with the embassy, were putting together a team to play a Japanese team in Gunma Prefecture. Hiratsuka was asked to join this team, and after the match the group decided to put together the Tokyo Canadians. Their initial goals weren’t necessarily to play in Japan, but in tournaments around the world.
“If I hadn’t found hockey, I would have gone home in a year”
“If I hadn’t found hockey, I would have gone home in a year”
One of the first tournaments they joined was in Thailand, and it was there — quite early on — that a fundamental aspect of the team got its start. They developed a connection to the community in Bangkok, and started thinking about ways of supporting it. During the year, they would hold parties in Tokyo to raise money, and the proceeds from the parties would go to support children at the Mercy Centre, an organization in Bangkok that includes a school — the institution was founded by an American priest, Father Joseph Maier.
Each year, they would take one or two children as their wards. One particular success story was a girl named Lek, whom the team sponsored, starting when she was nine years old. She later studied in the United States and Norway, and since graduating, has returned to work for the school.
Meanwhile, back in Japan, the team was rapidly gaining new members and were going to as many as three tournaments a year. In addition to Thailand, locations they’ve hit include Hong Kong, South Korea, North Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Mongolia — where, similar to what they did in Thailand, they started a program through which they donate hockey equipment to players. And they also started playing more locally.
Hiratsuka has had a long and successful career in Japan, but what kept him here, particularly in the beginning, was hockey: “If I hadn’t found hockey, I would have gone home in a year. I might have gone to live somewhere — Edmonton, maybe — and done something really boring. But it has created a community of people for me whom I consider to be some of my closest friends.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Mike LaRose, a native of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He first came to Japan in 1988, and played university hockey at Toyo University. A member of the team for 22 years, he has gone back to live outside of Japan a couple of times since first coming, but always maintains a close connection to the Tokyo Canadians, wherever he is. “For me, the whole purpose of the team has been to get people together. Obviously, living away from home, having people you’re familiar with to talk is a big part of the team. Even though I’m a little older than many of the guys on the team now, coming back to join them and being a part of the group is really important to me.”
As the group explained to me through a number of anecdotes, for many of its members, the Tokyo Canadians has served as an entrée to life in Japan — it has led to jobs, long friendships and even marriages. Arron Dobrescu, a native of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, has been connected to the Tokyo Canadians for more than 18 years, and he explained that joining up with the team was one of the first things that he did when he got to Japan. Now, running a successful language school business, he has found business partners and employees through his connections with the Tokyo Canadians. A former semi-pro player, Dobrescu applies the ideas of teamwork and camaraderie that he has gained from hockey to all aspects of his life — from how he motivates his teams to how he develops the curricula for his schools.
Kevin Holt, the captain and president of the team, is actually not from Canada. He hails from Rhode Island, and first started playing with the Tokyo Canadians in 2005. He learned about the Tokyo Canadians through an ad in a free magazine, and quickly found a group that welcomed him warmly, and showed him around the world: “By finding hockey in Japan, it helped me find a family away from home. [Before coming to Japan] I had never really been away from the States, and away from my family. The team really had that family element for me. I was the young guy, but I didn’t feel like I was young and out of place. And now I was on the other side of the world, and I started travelling around Asia with these guys to countries I never knew existed.”
As Holt explained, virtually every job that he has got in Japan — he now also works in finance — has come through connections he has made through the Tokyo Canadians. After having been the beneficiary of so much support from older players when he was younger, he is dedicated to keeping the team successful and providing the same opportunities for new members.
Founding member Brent Carlson, who couldn’t join us that evening, added later: “When we started the Tokyo Canadians, several important founding principles were to have a team on which we could play Canadian-style hockey, build a sense of community that would last long after the founding members left Japan and to ‘give back’ by supporting charitable organizations. I’m happy that we’ve accomplished those goals and that the team is still going strong, giving an opportunity to players who love the game, the camaraderie and helping others. My son, Leon, is the first of the next generation to join the team and I hope to keep playing long enough until my younger son, Quinn, can join the team too! What I’m most proud of is the charitable contributions we have made over the years to support great causes in Japan and around Asia.”
Currently, the team has 42 registered members, although not all make it to every practice. Membership is about 50 per cent Canadian or Japanese who have studied in Canada, about 30 per cent American or Japanese who have studied in the United States and 20 per cent Japanese. There is also one Swede on the team. At any given practice, you can find players in their twenties as well as those in their sixties.
With economic ups and downs, the Tokyo Canadians has gone through periods of relative inactivity, but now in its 25th year, the team has picked up steam and is thriving. They recently received a sponsorship from Celliant, a California-based company that makes high-performance textiles used in athletic gear.
Seth Casden, Celliant’s CEO, explained that he was proud to be able to help the team, financially and with equipment: “Celliant is excited to partner with the Tokyo Canadians. Hockey is an intense, competitive sport and Celliant provides a clear advantage to help the team perform better and recover faster.”
With a limited number of rinks around the greater Tokyo area, the Tokyo Canadians find themselves travelling around to get in their practice time, sometimes even going as far as Sagamihara in Kanagawa Prefecture. But for the members and the strong sense of solidarity that they develop through their time on and off the ice, it’s all worth it.