NIKKO, Tochigi Pref. – “Hard work, every day.”
Huge orange banners bearing this phrase hang majestically on the walls and from the ceiling of the Nikko Kirifuri Ice Arena, the home of the Nikko Ice Bucks hockey club.
The motto may sound like a cliche for a sports team, but it’s no exaggeration for this club. The professional ice hockey franchise, based in the calm, historic town in Tochigi Prefecture, about 120 km northeast of Tokyo, has no time to rest in its quest to be the leading team in Japan and Asia.
The Ice Bucks’ hardworking attitude derives from the club’s dark days, when the only thing that occupied their minds was how to stay alive.
The Ice Bucks, now of the nine-team Asia League Ice Hockey, were established as a successor to the Furukawa Electric hockey club, of the old Japan League, when the corporate giant opted to fold its 90-year-old team in 1999.
As much as becoming the first pro hockey team in Japan was a groundbreaking event, it brought with it many problems.
The Ice Bucks, who captured the 82nd All-Japan Ice Hockey Championship on Sunday, no longer received the big-company backing of Furukawa Electric and were burdened with serious financial woes, which caused payment delays for the players at times. The club constantly faced the threat of extinction.
Ice Bucks team director Hideji Tsuchida, who played for the Ice Bucks, said the team was thrown into turmoil after the support that it received from Furukawa Electric for the first couple of years following its inception ended.
“We were getting a lot of interest and support because we were the first professional club. We had support from Furukawa as well,” Tsuchida told The Japan Times at Kirifuri Ice Arena. “But once the support ended (from Furukawa), then we started being thrown into situations where we could have gone under.”
When the first crisis struck, in 2001, the Ice Bucks barely avoided disbanding when they received about 100,000 signatures from their loyal fans, not just from within Tochigi but from all over the nation.
But even the support of the fans couldn’t drastically improve the club’s financial status. In fact, Tsuchida describes how it had to go through years of hardship afterward.
But the club finally saw a ray of hope in the summer of 2006, when well-known Japanese-Brazilian soccer commentator Sergio Echigo joined the club as its senior director (Echigo, who played as a forward for famous Brazilian club Corinthians, suited up for the Japan Soccer League’s Towa Real Estate S.C., which was based in Tochigi, back in the early 1970s). Echigo set up a new managing company, called Tochigi United, to run the Ice Bucks starting with the 2007-08 season.
And in 2010, the club began a business tie-up with Yoshimoto Kogyo, a major Japanese entertainment conglomerate. The following year, it hired Takayuki Hioki, a sports media business expert as its managing director.
Both Echigo and Hioki weren’t hockey gurus, nor was Yoshimoto Kogyo. But with the knowledge they had regarding other sports and sports business, the Ice Bucks were gradually heading in the right direction.
* * *
With no big sponsor backing them, the volume of support from the Ice Bucks’ fans has been absolutely critical. Tsuchida says the club is desperate to draw crowds to Kirifuri and the club’s staff consistently racks its brains to persuade fans to keep coming back to games and events.
“Our fans are the top priority that we have to think of,” Tsuchida said. “And we’ve got to think about how to make them cheer us and keep their eyes on us. We definitely rely on attendance.”
Tsuchida explained that the club also benefits from its hockey school and its fan club, which he added is “by far” the biggest in the league with some 1,600 members.
Tsuchida doesn’t think that the Ice Bucks’ games alone can amuse the fans. The team has consistently been attempting to develop the entertainment side of its business — for example the presentation and music at the arena, hosting off-ice events and pre-game ceremonies — thanks to the influence of Hioki, who was part of a group which established a sports business company, Sports Marketing Japan, and has worked in digital media and business consulting for the NFL, WWE pro-wrestling and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, among others.
“Those are things that other teams aren’t really doing,” Tsuchida said. “So we can proudly tell you that the Ice Bucks are different.”
At one late-October game at Kirifuri, Tsuchida and some other staff members were handing carnations to the fans entering the arena. That day, an Utsunomiya-based beauty salon was the title sponsor of the game.
Also, Halloween was approaching, so Tsuchida said that a snack company would be a title sponsor and the club would likewise give snacks to the boys and girls with the staff in costumes.
Similarly, they have different title sponsors for their home contests and that is what makes each one unique.
“What we’re really scared of is losing the fans,” Tsuchida said. “We want to provide a different inspiration at every game.”
Some fans said that the ticket prices for the Ice Bucks home games are more expensive than at other clubs, particularly corporate-owned clubs.
Tsuchida admitted as much but insisted that the club tries to add extra values with its home games.
* * *
Makoto and Mikiko Sasakawa, a middle-aged couple, are die-hard Ice Bucks fanatics who have bought season tickets for years. In fact, they’ve come to the rink dating back to the Furukawa Electric era of nearly two decades ago, and frequently make trips to other venues for the team’s away games (Makoto said he has previously gone to games outside Japan as well).
Although the ticket prices are higher and the team doesn’t really deliver many victories (the Ice Bucks were in seventh place with 34 points as of Dec. 12), the Sasakawas still remained loyal. Love that asks nothing in return, you could say.
“The players are like our children. I start to worry, wondering if they are eating well and things like that,” Mikiko said with a smile. “We appreciate them for giving us something that we can get excited about.”
And for the Ice Bucks players, there’s no place like Nikko to hit the rink.
They may not earn as much as players at other clubs and may not have as big of a chance to win a championship every year, because of their lower budget (Tsuchida attested that the team’s budget is roughly one-third of that of bigger corporate clubs like the Oji Eagles and Nippon Paper Cranes, who are said to spend about ¥500 million or more annually). But some guys are happy to play here.
The Ice Bucks finished as runnerup in the 2011-12 season, and that’s the best result they have had since their inception.
Forward Kazuma Iwamoto, who played high school and college hockey in the United States, acknowledges that winning every single contest is impossible, but that giving inspiration to the fans is not.
“We’re aware of that from our daily life,” said Iwamoto, when asked if the Ice Bucks players realize that they have to draw as many fans as possible as a pro club. “We’ve got to appreciate the fans, and it’s our theme to work hard in our practices and move our fans in our games.
“Even when we are behind in games, we’re never going to give up, keep putting our bodies on the line until the very end. That’s something we are aware of.”
Canadian forward David Bonk, who is in his fourth season with the team, insisted that it is special to play in Nikko.
“It makes a big difference and the Ice Bucks don’t have one huge sponsor backing,” said Bonk, a former American Hockey League player. “There’s a lot of different sponsors, the fans contribute a lot. It makes it a lot more fun to come to games. We have good crowds. Some of the teams out there aren’t so great, so it feels great.”
* * *
While every staff member and player carries a responsibility for the team, Hioki is probably one of the most significant in terms of holding the key for its future. With his past experience in sports marketing and business, he has become an irreplaceable asset for the club.
Hioki said with a wry smile that the Ice Bucks didn’t have the business acumen to properly manage its affairs before his arrival. But this no-nonsense figure was given full decision-making powers for the business side of the club and transformed it to get back on the right track.
But Hioki is far from satisfied with the status quo. He thinks that the sport has more potential, not just the Ice Bucks (the Japan League used to draw jam-packed crowds a couple of decades ago).
Bonk said that the game is “dying,” and the irony is that the quality has gotten better.
“Maybe it’s frustrating for some of the Japanese guys, because the players are better,” Bonk shrugged. “Hockey is a lot better now. So it’s a better product for the fans.”
Hioki is trying to raise the bar of the whole Asia League, which consists of teams from Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, because success of the Ice Bucks alone won’t help improve the popularity of the game in Asia.
In other words, everybody has to be on the same page, bringing more parity to the league at a higher standard.
“No matter how well one team does, if the entire league isn’t doing great, it’s going to be over,” Hioki said. “What we’re doing right now is providing know-how to other clubs.”
Hioki said the idea is comparable with the NFL, in which a parity system is common practice — as seen in the draft and revenue sharing — adding that is something the Asia League needs to apply.
“You have to make the managerial sizes equal,” he said. “Nevertheless, it’s going to be difficult to make the league more fascinating.”
Traditionally, Japan’s sports leagues have tended to be old boys’ clubs, and it’s not been easy to change things, especially when trying to implement radical reforms.
Hioki, however, said that although that had previously been an issue, the things he has insisted upon have gradually been understood by those in the hockey circle, because of what the Ice Bucks, along with the Tohoku Free Blades, have done as pro clubs.
He said it has been proven by some of the players having moved to pro teams like Nikko and Tohoku with smaller contracts.
“Some of them come to join our team, though their salaries would be lower,” Hioki said. “Why do they do that? Because they want to play in front of a lot of fans.”
* * *
Away from the size of the paychecks, Nikko is probably the place players really feel like pros, perhaps much more so than anywhere else in Asia.
“Through all sports, there are teams with higher budgets and teams with lower budgets,” said Nikko assistant coach Burke Henry, a Canadian. “That doesn’t always equate to success.
“(The club has) been very professional and it’s been a good place for me. And it’s exciting to be at the best hockey town in Asia.”
And the Ice Bucks won’t stop striving to be the leading hockey team in the league.
In fact, they now look outside the circuit, not just inside.
Back in May, the club started partnerships with the NHL’s New York Islanders and the Finnish League’s Ilves-Hockey Oy, with the purpose of strengthening the team, exchanging personnel and sharing information.
Forward Yuta Suzuki participated in Ilves’ camp in May, while another forward, Yuri Terao, joined the Islanders’ rookie camp in July.
Tsuchida said that the club wanted to show that it’s linked with the world.
“While we want to be a team that gives the local people joy, we want to produce players that will get out to the world,” he said.