Yujiro Nakajimaya, captain of the Kokudo Bunnies and a member of Japan’s national team, is not your average Japanese professional hockey player. In four teenage years spent at Notre Dame College, a high school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, the Hokkaido native gained more than just a fluent command of English. He also adopted the Canadian style of rough-and-tumble hockey — something not often seen in Japan — while playing in the school’s renowned hockey program, which has produced such stars as Wendel Clark and Curtis Joseph.
Now a 10-year veteran of the Japan Ice Hockey League, the 29-year-old Nakajimaya spent last month participating in the training camp of the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. The 180-cm, 84-kg defenseman was invited as a goodwill ambassador for the Japan Ice Hockey Federation ahead of Nashville’s two-game season-opening series against the Pittsburgh Penguins held this past weekend at Saitama Super Arena.
At a press conference in Tokyo last week, Predators captain Tom Fitzgerald spoke highly of Nakajimaya’s involvement.
“Not only did he come to camp and do extremely well, but I think we can all say we gained a friend,” said Fitzgerald.
“There was no guarantee he was going to play in a game,” noted the veteran winger. “All he did was practice for almost a month. The reason you practice is to play, and when all you do is practice, it can get frustrating. He worked so hard, he deserved to play.”
In a preseason contest Sept. 26 against the Atlanta Thrashers, Nakajimaya got what he deserved. He became the first Japanese-born player ever to play in a NHL game and made the most of the opportunity, recording an assist as the Predators won 4-1.
Nakajimaya traveled back to Japan with the Predators last week and acted as a tour guide, translator and adviser for the team in the days leading up to their games against the Penguins, before rejoining his Kokudo teammates for the Japan Ice Hockey League season.
“Yujiro’s been great with us,” gushed Predators right winger Scott Walker. “And it’s been a blessing to have him here in Japan. We don’t feel as intimidated going into some places since he can help us with the language barrier. It would be good to have about eight Yujiros on the team, because he’s being pulled in every direction helping guys get around town.”
In an interview with The Japan Times, the amiable Nakajimaya talked about his unique adventure abroad.
What was it like to take part in an NHL training camp?
It was a great experience. I learned a lot but there are still more things I want to learn. It really impressed me how hard the guys work in practices and games. In Japan there are only 40 games a season, but in the NHL there are 82 games. If they lose a game, they look ahead to the next game and say “we’ll try harder in the next one.”
How would you compare the level of play in North America to the Japanese league?
There’s so much of a difference, but still, hockey is hockey. We do almost the same drills in practice and the system is almost the same, so I could adjust. The biggest difference is that when you’re a kid in Japan, Grade 5 and 6, everyone who wants to play makes the team. We don’t have those levels — pee wee, bantam, midget. You just play and hope you get better. You don’t have to fight for a spot on the team. But there, you learn from a young age how to win the game and win for yourself. So when you make it to the top, you know how to win those battles.
How much of an effect did your time at Notre Dame in Saskatchewan have on your career?
I was there from the age of 15 or 16 to 19, so there were a lot of things to learn on and off the ice. Everything was new and exciting. On the ice I like being aggressive, I like the physical stuff, so I fit in well. It prepared me for thinking like a pro, going through the tough stuff, having to make the team in Triple-A bantam, Triple-A midget, Junior A. I had a hard time with the junior team, because there were a lot of good players coming in and I only got to play every four games or so. Did you find a difference in the style of play when you returned to Japan to play for Kokudo?
Yeah, I was the most penalized player in the league. Everything I did was a penalty!
When you got to the Predators training camp, did you have any indication that you’d be able to play in a preseason game?
They said I might play but nothing was decided. The coaches, Brent Peterson and (head coach) Barry Trotz, told me a couple of days before the game and I was really excited.
Could you describe the play when you got your assist?
They put me out on the power play in the second period. I got a pass across the blue line from Billy Houlder and I passed down into the corner to Greg Classen. Classen passed in front of the net to Scott Walker and he “shelfed” it.
Was it a big thrill?
Yeah, I said to myself “Wow, I got an assist,” and I raised my hands so high. The players told me later that everyone on the bench went crazy.
Did you keep the puck?
Yes, they made me a plaque with the puck on it and “First NHL Point” written on it.
If you get another chance would you like to attend another NHL camp?
Definitely. I wish I was much younger . . . I would have just stayed there. I hope I can play well in Japan and maybe someone will offer me a chance like this again.