Saturday, November 19, 2011

Asia League Ice Hockey Doubleheader - November 6, 2011

The Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH) is a relatively new circuit that formed in 2003 after the Korean Ice Hockey League folded. At that time, the Japan Ice Hockey League (JIHL) was suffering a decline in popularity, so they brought in a single Korean team along with four Japanese teams. Over the years, the league has seen teams come and go; this season there are four squads in Japan, two in Korea, and one in China. Each team plays the other six times over a 6-month span (a schedule that NHL players no doubt envy) and then there is a playoff, with the winner being awarded the aptly-named Championship Trophy.

None of the four Japanese teams play in the Tokyo area, but a few times a season they have weekend doubleheaders at one of two rinks where the JIHL was once based. I had never had occasion to go as my lone JIHL experience was rather forgettable, but at a recent street hockey tournament in which I was "officiating", I met a guy who told me he was refereeing in ALH (his photo above). I was immediately intrigued and when I discovered that he would be reffing games on November 5 and 6th in Yokohama, I decided to check it out.

Shin-Yokohama Skate Center

Located about 5 minutes from Shin-Yokohama station, the arena is used more for figure skating than ice hockey judging from the name as well as the display in the cafeteria, which shows some of the more famous skaters who have practiced there.

The seating bowl is tiny, with four rows of plastic seats (reserved) and three rows of wooden benches closer to the glass. If you want a reserved seat (4,000 yen), you can only get it for one of the two games, then you must move to the benches, which are 3,000 yen for both games. If you sit behind the players' bench, you will have trouble seeing the game as the players stand throughout. A lot of fans choose to stand at the top of the seating area, which offers the best view but is hard on your legs.

There are a few items in the cafeteria (above), but you are best advised to purchase your food from the convenience store located on the ground floor, which has much more selection and is a bit cheaper. As usual, you can bring anything you want in.

You cannot walk around the entire arena on the concourse as one end is limited by the small size of the building. There is a small shop selling hockey equipment and other sporting goods, but otherwise nothing else. I don't expect too many people to go out of their way to visit here, but if you do, now you know what to expect.

Game 1 - Tohoku Free Blades 2 vs Oji Eagles 3

The Free Blades (in blue above) come from the area that was devastated by the tsunami back in March, while the Eagles, a team that has been around since 1925, play out of Hokkaido. Tohoku had only won 3 of 13 to lie 6th of 7 teams, while Oji (in white below) was a more respectable 4-5, but only 5th as they had played fewer games. (The league breaks down the standings into regulation wins (3 points), OT wins (2) SO wins (2), SO losses (1), OT losses (1) and regulation losses (0). This is stupid, so I'm just listing their W-L record.)

This was the game that my acquaintance was refereeing so I spent more time focused on the officials rather than the play. I did notice that Oji was the stronger team as they outshot Tohoku 15-4 over the first 20 minutes, but they were down 1-0 on a goal from Paul Albers. Early in the second, Aaron McKenzie blasted a shot from the point that beat Masahito Haruna (below) to make it 2-0.

That seemed to wake up the Eagles, who responded with a lot of pressure that resulted in a goal just a few minutes later when Marc Cavosie pounced on a loose puck and put it home. The third period was when Oji really showed their class as they scored twice in a minute, including a great slapshot from Aaron Keller, who had come off the bench and was spotted by Cavosie. A deft cross-ice pass and one-timer left Tohoku keeper Michio Hashimoto with no chance and the Eagles were up 3-2. They held on to that lead and although the Free Blades had a few chances as time wound down, nothing else beat Haruna.

After the game, the Eagles bowed to their happy fans as is customary here.

This was a decent game with good flow, helped out by some solid officiating. There were 11 minors called, but none of the post-whistle pushing and shoving that can make minor league hockey so frustrating.

After an hour or so break during which you could leave the arena to find some more food, it was time for the second match of the day.

Game 2 - Nikko Icebucks 6 vs Nippon Paper Cranes 5

The Icebucks play out of Nikko, which is just a couple of hours from Tokyo. They are the class of the league so far at 11-5, while the Cranes, another Hokkaido-based squad, were in the middle of the pack at 6-6. That's backup goalie Kazuhito Kiyokawa below, sporting the brightest pads I've ever seen.

This game was marred by penalties: 20 in all, evenly split between the teams, both of whom scored 3 power-play goals. There was even a penalty shot. The game never had any real flow because of the overzealous refs, and took nearly 3 hours to complete, helped along by some difficulties with the glass at one point.

The Cranes opened the scoring just 2 minutes in when Tyler Mosienko (above) made a great individual move to beat Yutaka Fukufuji (below). NHL observers will recognize both names; Mosienko is the grandson of Hall-of-Famer Bill Mosienko who is best remembered for scoring 3 goals in 21 seconds, while Fukufuji was the first Japanese to play in the NHL, where he appeared in four games with the LA Kings back in 2006-07.

When the Cranes added a power-play tally midway through the period, it looked like an upset was brewing, but the Icebucks dominated the next 40 minutes, scoring 6 unanswered goals, including a hat trick from captain Takahito Suzuki (below).

Nippon Paper refused to fold (sorry!) though and scored three times in 6 minutes, the last coming with 2:02 to go. But they couldn't muster the tying marker and Nikko won by the 6-5 count. I didn't stay to watch the post-game as I had a train to catch, but I am sure there was more bowing involved.

Worth It?

Overall, the hockey isn't particularly good but it can be entertaining. There were certainly some nice plays and quality saves, but generally the play was a bit choppy. The most obvious difference is the lack of physicality compared to the NHL and even junior hockey. It seemed like there were more collisions between teammates than actual bodychecks. I'd say it's similar to the ECHL without all the fighting and well worth checking out if you are in Japan in the winter.

Next Up

Texas! I'm flying to Dallas for a 6-game, 4-night Thanksgiving trip highlighted by the Leafs at the Stars. Check back next week for updates.



No comments:

Post a Comment