At age 61, Japanese para ice hockey goalie Shinobu Fukushima hopes to make good use of his long experience at the upcoming Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“There’s no one else playing at this age, even in other countries,” laughs Fukushima, whose first Paralympics appearance was back in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games.
After competing at the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy, Fukushima helped Japan capture the silver medal in the ice sledge hockey competition at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Fukushima was a 23-year-old goalkeeper for an amateur soccer team when a spinal cord injury from a traffic accident left him in a wheelchair.
Since starting para ice hockey in 1998, Fukushima has played the sport while working at Nick, a Nagoya-based company that produces and sells wheelchairs.
Shots can exceed 100 kph in para ice hockey, but Fukushima says his long experience in goal helps him.
“I can sense when shots are coming,” he said.
He is also a big psychological support for the rest of the Japan squad, around half of whom will be Paralympic debutants. Fukushima is a “father figure,” says Yoshihiro Shioya, who at 29 is the youngest player in the squad.
The goalie can be tough on teammates during matches to drive their performance, but off the ice he is a gentle figure. “I’m grandpa,” he says. “I don’t say anything normally.”
While facing physical limits, Fukushima wants to communicate the appeal of ice hockey to Japanese fans and his own experience to younger generations of players.