Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pucks and Panko: Hockey (and Donuts) in the Pacific Rim

February 12, 2012

Konnichiwa hockey fans.

While many Canadians celebrate Hockey Day in Canada—the World Pond Hockey Championships in New Brunswick and CBC broadcasts from Prince Edward Island—in the Great White North, ex-pat Jay La Morre lives the hockey (and donut) dream in Chiba, Japan as his line scores four goals (even though his team lost).

Win or lose, La Morre loves the game as much or more as when he was a kid.

A Ken Dryden fan who grew up in Toronto and who says via email that he was “brainwashed into liking a losing team at an early age,” visited Japan in 1986 and then again in ‘87 because his father was living there. A year later, the young man who as a second grader in 1972 had watched the Summit Series with his classmates, moved to Japan. He planned to stay only a few years.

“And here I am, still here with one wife and two kids,” says the forty-something and commercial success.

In a country where hockey had yet to find a foothold, La Morre missed the action. “Thought I'd never play again,” he says, “but met a guy who is an ice hockey guy and I started again in 1998.”

Fourteen years later, he has encountered players who have grown to love the game as much as he does. La Morre, who is a twenty-minute trip away from Aquarink Chiba, says that although he speaks Japanese well enough, he and other English-speakers have concocted anglicized nicknames for other players.

“Grampa Hockey” is one such character. La Morre says of the old-timer who has since passed away, “He would come to the rink on his bike with all the gear and the coolest thing was his little radio he had in the carrier on the front. All decked out for AM radio sounds for the ride home.

“Another very interesting fellow is a relatively new guy, Kats B! Believe it or not, he is Kenyan. Educated at some of the very best schools in England and the USA. Extremely bright guy. He took up hockey less than a year ago and is starting to get somewhat good at it considering he's been skating for less than a year. He counts the amount of times he's been out to hockey. He's up to over 30 now!”

Like Kats B (the roots of his nickname perhaps a story for another day), Japanese players tend to become obsessed with hockey. La Morre says, “In case you didn't know when a person in Japan is involved with some kind of hobby, sport or whatever, that's all they do. Put a lot of time and effort into it and get really good at it.”

The better players might earn a tryout with the amateur Tokyo Canadians, or in the professional Asia League Ice Hockey. Most players like La Morre, however, won’t be recruited by the Nikko Ice Bucks and won’t likely become the next Gordie “Hockey-san” Howe or Takahito Suzuki.

Those who play are passionate, of course. But, says La Morre, hockey is still a minor sport in Japan.

The game we love doesn’t even receive honourable mention at Wikipedia’s page about Japan, and pucksters play in but half-dozen or so indoor venues.

Donuts shops are more prevalent than ice surfaces. The circular confections are almost as popular as panko or sake. Although Mister Donut (and to a lesser extent, Dunkin’ Donuts) are alive and well in Japan, Krispy Kreme is king.

“When they opened here about five years ago,” LaMorre says (and he swears he’s not kidding), “people would line up for hours to buy them. Mostly ladies, young ones. Japanese women get really excited about cake and sweet stuff!!” He adds that the Japanese word for “donut” is donut.

According to Google Translate, the same goes for hockey.

Hockey and donuts: No matter the language we use to identify them, or wherever they’re played or served—Plaster Rock or Charlottetown, Chiba or Edogawa—they make us happy.
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