Sato, Miura Grew Up in Japan, Now Blaze New Trail in NCAA
In recent years, college hockey has received an influx of talent from outside of North America. While the vast majority of that talent comes from Northern Europe, players from non-traditional markets are starting to break through.
One place in particular, however, is as non-traditional as it gets, since it never happened before.
On Oct. 21, freshman forward Kohei Sato made his debut for New Hampshire against Colorado College, making him the first player born and raised in Japan to play Division I men’s hockey. The list then got a little longer Jan. 27, when his friend and fellow Tokyo native, Lake Superior forward Yuki Miura, played in his first NCAA game against Bowling Green.
In the early 1990s, there were a handful of players with dual citizenships of Japan and the U.S. or Canada, but all grew up in North America. Currently, another player of Japanese descent who likewise was raised in Canada is Michigan State's Taro Hirose. If you want to go back further, Mel Wakabayashi, who was born in a Japanese internment camp in Canada during World War II, starred at Michigan in the 1960s, and his brother, Herb, was an All-American at BU.
Both Sato and Miura traveled a long way — literally and figuratively — to get where they are today. Sato worked his way up through Canadian hockey before spending three years in the NAHL, most recently with the Northeast Generals. It was there where he was recruited to play for New Hampshire.
“I didn’t really have any expectation, especially coming from Japan, not knowing about college hockey,” Sato said. “Playing in the North American Hockey League prepared me, and competing against high-level players made me want to compete at that level wanted me to pursue my dream.”
Miura’s path saw him travel through Europe, in the hopes of receiving a professional contract. While he managed to see limited time with HC Kladno of the Czech league, it didn’t pan out, so he switched his focus to the NAHL and played a season with the Waterloo Black Hawks.
“All players want to play in the NHL, I thought that this was my best opportunity to play in the U.S. — in the NCAA and the NHL,” Miura said. “I want to play in the NHL and my tutor thought the NCAA was a really good step.”
Sato and Miura have a long history. They played against each other back in Tokyo as children. They’d find their paths crossing again as teammates representing Japan at the 2015 IIHF U-20 Division I-B World Championships, where they finished fifth out of six teams in the group, helping their country stave off relegation.
Japan’s hockey is not as refined as some of the more established hockey countries. Currently it’s 23rd in the IIHF rankings. The Japanese style of play is fast, but lacks depth. Sato noted that he hasn’t had much hands-on experience with the Asia League — the highest level of hockey in Japan — outside of online videos that he keeps up with.
“North American hockey is more fun for me to play,” Sato said. “No offense to Japanese hockey, but ever since I came over, I’ve been loving it.”
The two freshmen may be from a place not known for hockey, but the sport is in their blood. Sato’s father played professionally in Japan, while Miura’s father Takayuki, represented his country at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
“He’s my father, and on the other side, he’s my greatest hockey coach,” Miura said. “He taught me how to play and how to fix my play. I think I couldn’t play if my father didn’t help. I appreciate my father’s help a lot, and it’s why I play NCAA hockey now.”
While many players in North America may have memories of watching their favorite players or teams as motivation factors, Miura and Sato have their fathers to thank for their hockey passion.
“I had went to an NHL game and had never seen an NHL game growing up,” Sato said. “I knew of the existence of the NHL, but growing up in Tokyo, I personally thought it was the furthest thing from me. I didn’t know anything about it.”
While there may not have been a strong understanding of the hockey culture in North America at the time, Sato did mention that he was aware of Paul Kariya, the former Maine and NHL star, due to him being of Japanese ancestry.
Miura dealt with some road blocks on his way to playing for Lake Superior. The forward went to school in multiple countries, leaving a detailed set of transcripts that needed to be approved by the NCAA before he was able to put on the blue and gold sweater.
When Miura received NCAA clearance to play for the Lakers in November, he wasn’t able to contribute due to a bad leg break during practice early in the season. While it was a setback, it became a motivating factor. He had to work harder to realize his goals, completing his recovery in time for last weekend’s game, the final home game of Lake Superior’s season.
“When you see his hockey IQ, you don’t think of somebody coming from such a nontraditional place because he’s got a real natural ability to read the game and make plays,” Lake Superior coach Damon Whitten said. “His dad’s experience in the game, and being involved in the highest levels in Japan, he’s got a much deeper background than people may think coming out of a nontraditional area.”
The two players may have experienced different paths to the NCAAs, but they’ve kept tabs on each other along the way, and remain close today. They frequently text, and push each other to succeed.
“I’ve always played against him growing up,” Sato said. “I never saw myself giving advice to him, rather him giving advice to me. I personally thought he was a better hockey player than I was. I was trying to take advice from him. I haven’t really given him much advice. I just wished his recovery was quick. I was texting him during his recovery, giving him updates, but not really advice.”
Miura does credit Sato with providing him guidance to adjusting to the ins and outs of playing in North America, especially with Sato having several years of experience under his belt.
“He was playing in the U.S. before I came here, so he has a lot of experience in the U.S.,” Miura said. “Last summer, me and Kohei practiced together a couple times in Tokyo. He told me about U.S. hockey and how you prepare. He helped me a lot, and he’s one of my greatest friends.”
While the players may be reluctant to latch onto the title “role model” at such a young age, they both know what their pioneering means for younger kids back home. Hockey is an emerging sport in Japan, one that got a boost when the country hosted the Olympics 20 years ago. Japan also hosted the Olympics in 1972, but momentum has only seemed to build more recently. Their success now, and their accomplishments to come, are products of that.
“In Japan, there are a lot of young kids who want to play in the NHL and college hockey, and I think that’s a really good thing,” Miura said. “Me and Kohei talk about that. We make an [example] for the young kids. I’d like to make Team Japan a [better] team. My dream is playing in the NHL and playing in the Olympics.”
If either Sato or Miura make the NHL, they would be the second Japanese-born player to accomplish this. The first, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, appeared in four games for the Los Angeles Kings during the 2006-07 season.
“I hope we set the tone for little kids over in Japan,” Sato said. “It’s such an honor if kids in Japan could look up to us. I just want to do it for them, and try to get talented kids over here — more talented than we were as little kids. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start a culture.”