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When Russian Iouri Rytchkov stepped off the plane from Moscow he spoke barely a word of Japanese, or English for that matter. That did not stop the 48-year-old ice-hockey veteran from taking a group of high school boys from Aomori Prefecture and making winners out of them.

The task was not easy. In Japanese ice hockey, teams from Hokkaido have been unrivaled since 1952, when the national high school competitions were first held. Their strength lies in the popularity of the sport on the northern island, where it generates intense competition. The intensity of play is unmatched by any other part of Japan.

That was until 21/2 years ago, when Rytchkov arrived. The seasoned Russian coach brought with him methods of training and techniques never before seen in Japanese ice hockey, which has traditionally followed a Canadian or Scandinavian style of play.

“We believed that if we were to contend against Hokkaido, the Russians could help,” says Toshia Ishifuji, head coach at Kogyo Daigaku Daiichi High School in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture. The strength of the sport in Russia comes much from their training system. Talented youngsters are picked out, often at a very young age, and specially trained as elite athletes.

Under Rytchkov’s guidance, a team of local boys have gone from a national ranking of 16th two years ago to third place in the National Inter-Hi tournament in Yamanashi this past January.

“We’re no longer intimidated by Hokkaido,” Ishifuji remarked, after his players fought in the quarter finals against the national champions from Komazawa High School in Tomakomai. “It is Rytchkov’s confidence-building strategy that has made the biggest difference.”

Rytchkov is one of 33 sports education advisers working in the Japan Education and Teaching program. It is the job of SEAs like Rytchkov to cultivate sports culture in public schools around Japan, while bringing international awareness to the local communities.

SEAs are chosen not for their language skills, but for their ability to coach a sport. Coaches like Rytchkov who do not have a command of English or Japanese are faced with significant language challenges.

How has he liked Hachinohe?

“I’m a country person at heart,” Rytchkov comments through a Russian-Japanese interpreter. “Life here is sometimes lonely, but peaceful. I’ve preferred it over the hectic life of Moscow.”

Following his arrival in Hachinohe, Rytchkov soon became a local celebrity. His name and face appeared frequently in local newspapers and on television. “I found it amusing when an old lady ran across the street to get her photo taken with me,” Rytchkov says.

In a spirit of hospitality, Ishifuji and members of the community bought Russian conversation books to converse with their Russian guest. “During those first months we spent many nights together with Rytchkov,” Ishifuji says, “thumbing through our dictionaries and communicating through sign language.” It did not take him long to pick up a smattering of Japanese, including ice hockey terms.

The northern winter months were not without periods of homesickness, which he relieved by periodic drives up to Misawa, 30 km away. Near the military base is a Russian restaurant where Russian-speaking U.S. military personal often gather.

“I made a friend up there who was from Ukraine, and we’d talk about home,” Rytchkov says.

Rytchkov was born and grew up in the Russian city of Omsk, where he began competing in ice hockey seriously from the age of 6. Following high school he joined the local professional team, Avante Garde, as a defense man, where he played for eight years. At age 25, Rytchkov moved to Moscow, joining Team Sparta, one of Russia’s top clubs, where he played until he retired at age 35. In those days, Russian ice hockey stood unrivaled in world competition, and Rytchkov was also chosen for the Russian National B Team.

One of his old teammates and friends from Sparta ended up coaching the Ogi Seishi team, a paper company located in Hokkaido in the 1990s. Hearing that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was looking for a Russian coach to teach in Japan, in 1999 the old teammate recommended Rytchkov.

With five years experience coaching Sparta’s junior team following his retirement from professional play, and having traveled the world as a member of the All Russia Over-40 National Veterans team, Rytchkov was up for it.

The SEA maximum contract is three years and from this summer Rytchkov will return to his home town of Omsk, where he’ll coach the Avante Garde junior team.

What legacy will Rytchkov leave behind?

“Instead of just focusing on the team as a group,” Ishifuji says, “he showed me the importance of seeing the players as individuals. I can now identify the qualities of each player and support their individual needs.”

Will a new foreign coach replace him in Hachinohe?

“They don’t need foreign coaches any more,” Rytchkov says. “The Japanese coaches, like Ishifuji, can do the job now.”