More Sports / Ice Hockey

Yushiro Hirano follows nomadic path in bid for NHL

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Yushiro Hirano’s offseason isn’t filled with lazy, idyllic days in the sun.

The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect is staying busy.

He laced up his skates for the Japan national team at the recent IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Estonia, where Japan won two of its five games. Hirano, who plays right wing, had two goals — a game-winning tally and a power-play goal — and an assist while amassing 18 penalty minutes.

The 23-year-old is also competing for the Japan roller hockey men’s national team this summer. The squad qualified for the 2019 Roller Hockey World Cup, which will be held in Spain in July.

Hirano wrapped up his 2018-19 season by playing one game for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the top-tier American Hockey League.

He had an assist in the season finale on April 14. Before joining Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the final week of the season, he played for the ECHL’s Wheeling (West Virginia) Nailers, appearing in 67 of the team’s 72 games.

Hirano lit the goal lamp 19 times and registered 38 assists for the Nailers, one of 27 ECHL squads. He was second on the team in points. He also accrued 50 penalty minutes, and his parents had the chance to see him on the ice in four regular-season contests.

In a recent interview, Hirano looked back on his solid season, discussed adjustments he made playing in the United States again after spending the previous two seasons elsewhere and spoke about his big aspirations for hockey in Japan.

Hirano has set high standards for himself and keeps pushing himself to improve.

“I think I played well, but I’m thinking I’m not good enough,” he told The Japan Times. “If I want to have success in the AHL and NHL, I need to work on my defense more and I need to get more points, I need to try to get more shots.”

That said, Hirano’s 57 points and overall solid play grabbed the attention of Wheeling head coach Mike Bavis.

“I think (Hirano’s) offensive game is right there with the American Hockey League players,” Bavis was quoted as saying by The Intelligencer, a Wheeling newspaper. “He can make plays with players at that level and I really see his development continuing to head in that direction.”

In a mid-March game, Hirano netted the game-winning goal in a 2-1 shootout victory over Central Division rival Indy Fuel. That winning play exhibited Hirano’s growth as a player.

“I’ve had some chances in the shootout this season and I couldn’t score,” Hirano told the Wheeling newspaper. “So, to finally score feels good.”

Special recognition

Hirano was named the Nailers’ Rookie of the Year in voting done by his peers.

Even though Hirano was frustrated by his slow start with the Nailers, he gained confidence as the long season progressed.

“I couldn’t get points the first couple games and I felt, honestly, a little different and a little uncomfortable, but I changed my mind with my play,” he said, pausing to choose his words carefully. “My play is like a shooter and a scorer like that, but at that time I thought I need more team play.”

As a result, he focused on working to be a better all-around player, not just a sniper.

Or as he put it: “I can’t just stay in the slot and always wait for the pass.”

But his teammates encouraged him to stay alert and aggressive on the offensive end. “Yeah, my teammates always told me you have a good shot, so keep shooting, keep shooting,” he remembered.

He’s a stickler for details. For example, some defensive mistakes remain in the back of Hirano’s mind, and he wants to eliminate them.

“Sometimes I lost my guy and we got scored against and it was my fault, and coaches told me that you should watch your guy,” he said, recalling moments during the Nailers season. “But actually I’m getting better (on defense). I need to keep working on that.”

Bavis insisted that the 188-cm, 96-kg Hirano is on the right path to future success. And after the ECHL season wrapped up in early April, the Nailers coach offered words of inspiration to him.

What did Bavis say?

“He thinks I can play in the NHL if I keep working hard,” Hirano recalled before repeating some of the coach’s advice: “Keep skating hard. If you can do that in the AHL, you can get a chance to play in the NHL.”

Only one Japanese player, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji (Los Angeles Kings), has appeared in an NHL game since the league’s inception in 1917. Fukufuji stood between the pipes in four contests in 2007.

Japanese-Canadians, including Hall of Famer Paul Kariya and Devin Setoguchi, have enjoyed long careers in the NHL in recent decades.

Hirano realizes that Japanese youth need role models to help raise hockey’s profile here.

“Hockey is kind of a minor sport in Japan,” he said, “so I want to change it to a major sport.”

Paying his dues

Hirano, who hails from Tomakomai, Hokkaido, has traveled far and wide seeking opportunities to play hockey.

He appeared in 40 combined games in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons with the Tohoku Free Blades of the Asia League Ice Hockey. In those 40 games, he scored 23 goals. Two seasons ago, he also saw time (18 games with eight goals and five assists) with Kalmar HC in the Swedish second division.

During his free time in Japan this offseason, Hirano plans to speak to youngsters about his pursuit of an NHL career. Interacting with them at ice rinks, he looks forward to telling them “what I felt in the United States and it reminds me to work on (various) things.”

“I think I can give them dreams,” admitted Hirano, who attended Shirakaba Gakuen High School in Hokkaido before launching his hockey career with Tingsryds AIF in Sweden’s SuperElit, a junior hockey circuit, in 2014. He showed signs of promise that season: 12 goals and 14 assists in 37 games. In the 2015-16 campaign, Hirano honed his skills in the United States Hockey League, another junior hockey circuit (players are 20 or younger). He saw ice time in 54 games for the Youngstown Phantoms, scoring 24 goals and assisting on 22 more.

Dedication to his craft

For years Hirano has put in the work that was needed to become a consistent scorer.

“My shot did not come naturally — I have been working on it since I was in high school. I decided then that I was going to try and have the quickest and hardest shot in Japan,” Hirano told Canadian website thescore.com in a 2018 interview. “Before and after school I would shot about 100 pucks in my yard. Even to this day, I go out to my yard and shoot over 100 pucks two or three times a week. … I strive to have the best shot. I am a firm believer that if you want to improve you have to be willing to put in the time.”

For Hirano, the decision to take the road less traveled by a Japanese hockey player occurred while he was in high school. Playing for the Japan’s Under-18 national team, he competed in an international tournament in Slovakia.

And what’d he experience there?

“Good teams, good players, smart players with good skills,” he told The Japan Times. “That’s why I wanted to go outside Japan (to play hockey).”

This past season, Hirano lived about two minutes from the Nailers’ home rink in Wheeling (pop: about 27,000). He said it was a comfortable arrangement and enjoyed the small-town atmosphere while also getting numerous chances to interact with the team’s fans.

“One fan liked Japanese history and that was tough to explain,” said Hirano, who was a big Joe Sakic fan as a kid. “But it was good communication.”

In his free time, he enjoyed the excitement of watching a few Pittsburgh Penguins home games, where he was “absolutely impressed” with team captain Sidney Crosby.