Lake Superior sophomore Yuki Miura spent most of this past Sunday on his farewell hockey road trip of the season. He and his Japanese teammates crossed the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Helsinki before the transatlantic flight to North America. Miura eventually crawled home to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, for his kinesiology studies the next morning.
Miura just finished his second men’s IIHF World Championship tourney with Team Japan. He and Kohei Sato are the only two NCAA players listed from Japan, and they both participated in the six-team Group B of Division I, two tiers away from the Olympic powers like USA and Russia. The goal of teams in the lower six divisions is to win their group in order get promoted to the next highest rung. The ultimate dream is to qualify for the Olympics. Despite Japan’s optimism to advance to Division 1-A, Miura and his teammates finished their tournament in the middle of the pack, losing to nations like Poland and Romania.
“It was tough to finish the tournament in third place,” said Miura, who played a regular shift for Team Japan, but did not get on the scoresheet for his country. “We were really confident, but other teams had good players, too. It was not the result we wanted.”
Miura and Sato were outliers, the only NCAA hockey players in the tourney. Curiosity reigned in Japan’s locker room. “My teammates were really interested, they wanted to know what is college hockey, the competition level and everything,” Miura said. “I like to tell the younger guys that NCAA hockey is very good for Japanese players, both to play hockey and get educated.”
A Japanese name led the NCAA in scoring this year: Tara Hirose of Michigan State, who is of Japanese descent. For a nation seeking role models, Hirose is a logical choice. He played 10 games for the NHL Red Wings after finishing his banner campaign for the Spartans. “I knew before [Hirose] has a Japanese background,” Miura said. “He’s a really good player, now he’s playing in the NHL. I’d like to be like him next year, one of the best players in the NCAA. It helps my dream to become NHL player.”
Miura is currently not on any NHL scout’s radar. He has two career goals in NCAA play, and at 5-foot-9 is considered undersized. He spent a dozen games as a healthy scratch this year, including Lake State’s greatest moment of the season, winning the Great Lakes Invitational. “It was kind of a tough situation, when the team won the championship, I couldn’t be on the ice,” Miura said. “But at the same time, it was great. I was super happy that the team won, I’m so proud of this team, that I could be a member of Laker hockey.”
With extra time on his hands during the GLI, Miura learned the history of the tournament, and discovered a startling connection. The hero of University of Michigan’s first GLI championship in in 1966 was a Japanese citizen. “I saw the Most Valuable Players when Michigan won, Mr. Mel Wakabayashi,” said Miura, who had met Wakabayashi as a child. “I was surprised. I didn’t know that he was a top player in Michigan hockey, the best college hockey in the U.S.”
Wakabayashi and his brother Herb (Boston University) were NCAA superstars in the 1960s. Mel led Michigan to the 1964 NCAA title and ended up coaching Team Japan at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. “I’m so proud of him, he made a new path for Japanese hockey.”
With Japan hosting the Olympic Games next summer, all its athletes are fixated on the five rings. “The Olympics is very special,” Miura said, “but it’s going to be Summer 2020, not winter, so we cannot participate in Tokyo. My dream, and all the hockey kids in Japan is hoping to play in the Olympics. That’s my biggest goal as a hockey player.”
There is a path to the next Winter Games in 2022 for Miura to realize his goal, but it is a thorny one. First of all, Japan must win two qualification tournaments, the first coming in February 2020. If Yuki gets the call to play for his country once again, he will have to choose between his country and his school.
“I really love to play for Lake State, and also Team Japan, too. February is the most important time of the year, right before the playoffs. Lake State is my most important hockey life, so I’m not sure what my decision will be.”