Yushiro Hirano said he has opened “just one door” in his quest to be the second Japan-born player in the NHL.
The 23-year-old forward signed on Jan. 13 with the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, a farm club for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 185-cm, 100-kg Hirano spent the first half of the season in the third tier with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, scoring 10 goals with 18 assists over 35 games.
His performance — and a frighteningly powerful slap shot in particular — earned him an invitation to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s training camp last September.
“He’s got a really, really good shot and a really good release,” Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Clark Donatelli said during camp, according to the team. “It’s an impressive shot, and he’s fast. There’s a lot to work with here.”
After leaving Hokkaido’s Shirakaba Gakuen High School, Hirano played for Swedish club Tingsryds in the 2014-2015 season before landing in Ohio with the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country.
He returned to Japan in 2016 to play for his national team and the Tohoku Free Blades in the Asia League over the next two seasons. After a short stint in Sweden’s second division, he joined up with the Nailers in 2018, becoming just the second Japanese to play in the North American developmental second division.
So far, only one Japanese player has made it to the NHL. In 2004, goalie Yutaka Fukufuji was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and played in four games for the Western Conference team during the 2006-2007 season. He finished his NHL career with an 0-3 record.
Retired defenseman Hiroyuki Miura was the first Japanese player ever to be drafted when he was chosen in the 11th round by the Montreal Canadiens in 1992, but he never played in the NHL.
“I’ll show the pride of the Japanese flag, that anything is possible,” Hirano said after scoring two goals for the Nailers on Jan. 5.
Twenty-year-old Kailer Yamamoto, whose grandfather is Japanese, scored his first top-league goal with the Edmonton Oilers this season.
“It’s incentive,” Hirano said. “It’s frustrating that someone of Japanese descent can do it but a Japanese person hasn’t been able to do it yet. It makes me want to work harder.”
Hirano began playing hockey when he was 3 years old, having been influenced by his father and uncle, who both played professional hockey in Japan.
The sport’s popularity has declined throughout the country in recent years, with Nippon Paper Industries Co. disbanding its four-time Asia League-winning club in December.
“If I make it to the NHL, it will be the first step (in changing the state of ice hockey in Japan),” Hirano said.