Hockey Night in Kanada
When the Canadian Japanese Hockey League celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a banquet in Toronto in October 2011 it brought back a lot of memories for former hockey pioneers like John Onizuka and George Anzai. John had played hockey in Greenwood for three years during the interment and later went on to play for the TNHL (Toronto Nisei Hockey League) in Toronto for a year before giving up hockey to focus on his pharmacy studies at the University of Toronto. George is a another hockey pioneer, the only Nikkei player on a championship Vernon high school team who went on to play Junior A in Vernon before moving to Toronto with his family and joining the Nisei Flyers. They, along with hundreds of other players from different leagues and different eras gathered to reminisce about the past, sharing stories and memories.
The CJHL was formed in 1961 and it is estimated that 5,000 different players played for the league at one time or another. Unlike baseball, which had a strong player and fan base on the west coast due in large part to the legendary Asahi Baseball Team, hockey in the pre-war Japanese Canadian community never got much of a foothold. It wasn’t until the community was forced to move east during the internment years that younger people began to take up the sport in any numbers. While little is known about hockey in the camps, people like Mel Tsuji and Chuck Tasaka have dug up some information, particularly about Greenwood, which seems to have been the most organized. Both man have written about Nikkei hockey for The Bulletin and other publications.
The CJHL and its precursor the TNHL provided an opportunity for young nisei arriving from the Internment camps to play organized sports in their new home.
Today the CJHL continues to operate under the direction of Wayne Yamashita. Tournaments like the Canadian Multicultural Hockey Championship and the Asian Hockey Tournament are opportunities for the Nikkei players to measure themselves against other players and other teams.
In an interesting side note, the original name of the league was the Japanese Canadian Hockey League but it was later changed to the Canadian Japanese Hockey League according to Mel Tsuji because league managers wanted to emphasis the Canadian-ness of its players.
The Bulletin talked to Wayne Yamashita about the state of hockey in the Toronto area.
INTERVIEW: WAYNE YAMASHITA
When did you begin playing hockey?
As a kid we used to have a rink in the backyard and there were a lot of natural ice rinks. It was cold enough back then. I played ice and ball hockey as a kid but I didn’t play House League until I was 16. So I started really late but I’m 52 now so I’ve been playing for 36 years now.
Have the Arashi played in the Multicultural Hockey tournament from the beginning? How do they stack up against the other teams in the tournament?
The Arashi team was one of the original teams in the Multicultural tournament. There are two pools of teams in the Multicultural hockey tournament and we are in the Premier division. We are one of the weaker teams in the Premier division but we can compete against any team and can beat any team on any given day. We probably don’t have the depth the other teams have, but we are the only Asian team left in the Premier division. The Chinese and Korean teams used to be in the Premier division but they chose to play in the B Pool. The Japanese Team chose to remain in the Premier division. As long as the team can be competitive in the premier division, we will stay there. The Japanese community is smaller than both the Korean and Chinese communities so we have a smaller pool of players to pick from. Also the Japanese community is dispersed all over the GTA. We play a system and we have a good coach. And everyone has bought into the system. It’s a very defensive system but we are able to compete with teams with more talent. We keep the goals down and we have to capitalize on other team’s mistakes.
The team also plays in the Asian Hockey Tournament, which took place last week. How does the team fare there?
The Arashi team has never played in the Asian tournament as a team but a lot of the players on the team play on the 3 Nasian team. They played in the top Competitive division. It was basically the Arashi team with others added to it. They kept winning it every year so it actually hurts the competitive division. None of the other teams wanted to come back. This year a lot of the teams in the competitive division dropped out.
Historically, Japanese Canadians are known more for baseball – I’m thinking of the Asahi of course – yet there is a history of Japanese Canadian hockey in the Toronto area. Is this geographical do you think – the long cold winters?
I think it’s the culture here in Toronto. Because there’s no Japantown, Japanese Canadian are more integrated into Canadian culture. All my Japanese Canadian friends consider themselves Canadian more than anything else. Most of them like myself don’t even speak Japanese. Since there’s no Japan Town, we learned to fit in by becoming Canadians. Also 90% of the Japanese Canadians in Toronto marry outside the community. So our community is becoming multicultural but we try and keep a lot of the Japanese heritage.
I can’t imagine a Japanese Canadian hockey league in Vancouver – do you get a lot of support from the community in Toronto?
When we first entered we had a few sponsors for the Arashi team. We had enough to buy sweaters and pay for the tournament. Sponsorship has been tougher to come by lately. But still one of the sponsors gives us $1,000 every year. So it’s enough to pay for most of the tournament. For the Multicultural tournament we did have a golf tournament as a fund raiser one year and it was a success. We have a good group of people that come to watch our games in the multicultural tournament. A lot of them are parents but a lot are people in the community that want to come out to watch good hockey. The Arashi Juniors get a lot of support also but it’s mostly their parents and relatives watching.
Most people in Toronto know about the Arashi team by now even though they may not have ever seen a game.
Have you been to Japan to play hockey?
I was a part of a team that went to Japan in 1982. There was a team that went to Japan about 20 years before us. It was a team of third generation Japanese Canadians from the Japanese hockey league. We went for two weeks and visited seven different cities. We played one pro team but they killed us. They were at about a Junior A level. But the other cities we went into we went in to play some of the local teams and we won all of those games. We played a university All Star team which we lost 3-2 but it was the most exciting game we played there.
On the west coast they’ve been sending teams to Japan for a number of years now – do you have a similar initiate in Toronto?
Yes, I’ve known a few players here in Toronto that went with that team. But I heard one person sponsors that program. For us it would be nice to send another team to Japan like the Arashi team. It would be a lot of work and a lot of money to do this. We don’t have a sponsor here in Toronto to do that. I remember when we went in 1982, there was a lot of fund raisers and it was done by a committee of six and it took them a lot of work to do it. It would be nice to send the Arashi or Arashi Junior to Japan but I don’t foresee it unless I win a lottery.
What is your role with the Arashi and Arashi Junior teams?
I am the General Manager of the team. I basically take care of the all the off-ice stuff and recruiting players. I have a separate coach for both teams. They manage all the on-ice stuff like implementing a system and picking the team. The Arashi Team has try-outs and for the Arashi Junior team we just asked players to play.
What have you got from your involvement with hockey over the years? What do the kids get out of it?
Personally, I’ve met a lot of people over the years. It’s been a pleasure working with the Arashi team. All the players on the team are good individuals. We recruit players based on both talent and personality. The kids loved to play with other Japanese Canadian who they would never know if it weren’t for the Arashi team. They love to represent their community.
Do you follow Nikkei hockey players in the NHL, players like Devon Setoguchi?
Our generation followed Paul Kariya. Mainly because not only was he a NHL player but he was an elite NHL player. We also took ownership of Vicky Sunohara. Her father used to play in the Canadian Japanese Hockey League. I’ve met Vicky and she’s one of the nicest people you can meet. She’s very humble and a good role model for the younger girls.
The Canadian Japanese Hockey League is not confined to players of Japanese descent. How do you determine who is allowed to play? Does this cause tensions?
When I first started everyone in the league was Japanese Canadian. In order to survive we had to take any players who wanted to play. We basically got players from word of mouth so it’s normally friends of people playing in the league. We’ve had no real problems. We basically don’t invite players back if they don’t follow our expectation of sportsmanship. So we’ve kicked players out of the league for their conduct on the ice.
I’m curious about the Asian Hockey Tournament . . .
The Asian Hockey Tournament, held annually on the long weekend in May at York University, is the largest Asian hockey tournament in North American. There are 33 men’s team, four women’s and eight children’s teams participating and it ranges in levels and age groups. There is a children’s division which I was overseeing which started about four years ago. A lot of my friend’s kids were playing in the children’s division and they enjoyed playing with their friends and siblings. It got to a point where a lot of them were too old or too talented to play in the children’s division. So we thought of creating the Arashi Junior team to compete in the Adult division. Through contacts we were able to create a full roster of 14 Japanese Canadians who were all in their teens except for one player and still playing competitive hockey in the GTHL or OMHA. All the kids really enjoyed playing for a team of all Japanese Canadians and they got to know each other a lot better over the tournament.
What kind of turnout do you get for games in the tournament?
Most of the people that come out to watch the games are mainly the parents, grandparents or friends of the players. There’s more people in the community that come out to watch the Multicultural hockey championship just to watch good hockey. The level at the Multicultural hockey tournament is a lot higher than at the Asian tournament. There’s a lot of people at the Asian tournament watching because they are already there playing in the tournament.
Do you have a lot of kids playing?
There are enough kids in the Children’s division that we can form another entirely different Arashi Jr team in three or four years time. Hockey is a great vehicle for the kids to get to know each other in our small community. The Arashi Jr team won the lower Intermediate Adult division last year which shows that there are a lot of talented hockey players in our community. It’s just a matter of getting them together to help build self-esteem and identity.
I had the pleasure of knowing Peter Zezel, who was a big part of the Multicultural Hockey Tournament. Talking to him and Stan Papulkas, one of the goals for them was to start a mentoring program for kids. This is one thing that we want to do in the future. The Arashi Jr team is part of the process. We try and get the younger players in the community together and mentor them. We hope that we can even start them at an earlier age. Just rent some ice and invite the kids to come out and play and get to know the other kids in the community. We get some of the older players to help out and they get inspired by seeing other Japanese Canadians making it in the junior ranks or getting college scholarships. Or understand what it’s like to play for your community. I’ve only gotten positive responses from all the players who play on the Arashi or Arashi Junior team. They’ve all shown a lot of gratitude and appreciate the opportunity to play for a team of all Japanese Canadians. If in the process, they develop an interest in their history and motivates them to become involved in the community, I think that will be an added bonus.
Are younger kids still interested in playing hockey? There are so many things that compete for their attention these days . . .
I find the younger kids still love to play hockey. Most of the kids love being part of a team and the people they meet. They spend so much time together that they have to become good friends. Some kids find it very tiring also to be playing that much hockey. Also I find that as they get older like around 17 or 18 that hockey isn’t that important any longer. A lot of them realize that if they are not playing Junior or AAA by then they are not going to make a living out of it. So a lot the kids that go away to university stop playing hockey for a few years.
I think the problem is that in Toronto the newer immigrants don’t play hockey. In Toronto the South Asian are the largest visible minority group in Toronto, just above the Chinese. The population of the Greater Toronto Area is growing but the Toronto Maple Leaf fan base is not. The Leafs are trying very hard to get the Chinese and South Asians interested in hockey or they will start losing their fan base. CBC broadcasts some of the games in Punjabi or Mandarin to try and get their interest. For the Multicultural Tournament, Leaf TV is not interested in ethnic groups like the Irish, or Italians for example because hockey is part of their culture here in Canada. They are interested in the teams like the Chinese, South Asians or any ethnic group which hockey in not part of the culture.
This year’s Multicultural Hockey Championship will have more exposure. The finals will now be covered by OMNI and Rogers. They televise the finals on Rogers and they interview a lot of the players for “Every nation is a Leaf Nation.” They interviewed me on one episode.
Another problem with kids is that hockey tickets in Toronto are too high. So most kids have never seen a game live. It’s too expensive to go see a game. I’ve only seen one game at the Air Canada Centre myself. It’s been around for 12 years now. I remember as a kid going to see a Leaf game at Maple Leaf Gardens and all the fans cheering together. And that’s what gets you to love the game when you can go see them live and be part of the crowd. It’s not the same watching on TV. You get caught up in the atmosphere, especially in the playoffs.
What distinguishes the Japanese Canadian teams from the other teams do you think? Are there elements of Japanese culture that work their way into the team approach?
I think with our team it is their work ethic and how each player plays a role. They are not selfish and they all play for the greater good of the team. All the players are coachable and do what they are told to do and buy into the system. There’s no egos on this team. A lot of other teams don’t like to play us because we tire them out. Our team is fast but small in stature. But we forecheck and backcheck constantly and it eventually gets on them. The Arashi Junior team, because they are kids, they never stop skating. The other teams basically wear out by the third period. We played the Macedonian team in the playoffs one year and we lost but they said after that game they had nothing left for the next game.
The Arashi now have NAJC redress logos on their jerseys. What has it meant to you to receive support from the NAJC?
The boys wear the NAJC 25th redress anniversary patches on their jerseys, sponsored and paid for by the Toronto Chapter. Most of the players on the Arashi Junior team were not even born when the redress happened. Hopefully it sparks their interest in what happened to their grand parents and makes them aware of the anniversary. My father went through the interment camps. My mother was in Japan at the time so she wasn’t allowed to return back to Canada once the war started. My father died the same year of the redress agreement so he didn’t receive any compensation. He didn’t really talk about the interment camps that much, although he was bitter about it.
I understand you met your wife through hockey . . .
I met my wife through a co-ed hockey tournament. The head referee said he needed a goalie for a tournament he was running. I went out as a favour and I met two Japanese women that wanted to play in the Japanese Canadian league. They played in the league for two years, the only two women that have ever played in our league.
If Japan was playing Canada in some future tournament, who would you cheer for?
Some people ask me if I’m Chinese, Korean or Japanese. I always answer I’m Canadian. I don’t have an accent and I don’t even speak Japanese. I’m a third generation Canadian and I always consider myself just Canadian and I’m patriotic. I would never want to live anywhere else.
But if Canada played Japan in a hockey tournament I would definitely root for Canada although my wife is from Japan so we may drop the gloves over this game. She’s also a big hockey fan and plays a lot so she’s like most Canadians. But she doesn’t understand my love of Don Cherry.