|LA Kings 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Champions|
|Norfolk Admirals 2012 AHL Calder Cup Champions|
Coming off of the heels of two terrific playoffs with the LA Kings hoisting the Stanley Cup and the Norfolk Admirals sweeping the Calder Cup Finals, I have begun to wonder about how popular ice hockey is in Japan. We know that 野球(やきゅう) is the Japanese pastime more than it ever was in America . The MLB might have reported a higher attendance this year after 3 years of steady decline, but those numbers may be skewed and long term the trend in America is that baseball does not have the die-hard fans it once enjoyed (probably because there are too many damned games). Soccer also seems to be popular in Japan based on how often it is used in my textbook's practice sentences, with sumo rounding it out as Japan's #3 sport according to Wikipedia.
It is interesting to note that hockey has been played in Japan since the 1920's. Japan used to have the Japan Ice Hockey League (JIHL), which featured 6 teams, however it folded and Japanese ice hockey was absorbed into the Asia League Ice Hockey which has a total of 9 teams throughout all of east Asia. Currently only 4 teams play in Japan: the Nikko Ice Bucks out of Nikko in Tochigi, the Nippon Paper Cranes out of Kushiro in Hokkaido, the Oji Eagles out of Tomakomai in Hokkaido, and the Tohoku Free Blades out of Hachinohe in Aomori. Much like in North America, ice hockey is most popular in locations that have colder climates, as all of these teams except for the Ice Bucks are in northern Japan, and Nikko is in the mountains near Tokyo. Japan is also represented by a national team in the IIHF and the Olympic games composed of players from these 4 teams.
Sadly, however, ice hockey is not very popular in Japan, and you can tell by the seating capacity of the stadiums that Japanese teams play in. The Oji Eagles have the largest stadium with a seating capacity of 4,015 and the smallest is the Nikko Ice Bucks with only 2,000 seats. For comparison, the AHL average regular season attendance sees about 4500 people per game, and the NHL averages about 18,000 people per game. There seem to be more Japanese fans than anywhere else in east Asia, though, as Japan represents 4 of 9 teams in their league.
Also, as you can see from the video above, the Japanese ice hockey teams are not very good. The main thing I have noticed is that there is significantly less contact between players as in the NHL, AHL, or the IIHF for that matter. Sure, there are a few checks in the video, but it almost seems as if the players are afraid to make some solid hits, and the game seems to flow much more slowly. It makes me wonder if the Asian teams have hockey fights and how those play out. In the IIHF, Japan is currently ranked #22 in men's hockey and #11 in women's hockey, and their highest world championship showing was a tie for 6th place in 1930 (they usually get around 20th now).
Nevertheless, I would love to see a hockey game in Japan. Perhaps when I am out of the Navy and a full-time student in Japan, I will take the JR up to Nikko to see the Ice Bucks play. じゃまたね。