(Picture used with permission of Breakaway Magazine).
While this week’s Islanders prospect mini-camp has been beset by Tavares-mania, it has been a bit of a slow news period for Okposo Net. So while Kyle is presumably keeping busy this summer by golfing, video gaming, and attending weddings (Rick DiPietro will be tying the knot this coming Saturday), we went to the practice rink looking for a somewhat different mini-camp angle. And we most certainly found it in the form of Shuhei Kuji.
First, some background. Kuji developed his hockey skills while growing up in Tomakomai, Japan, situated on Hokkaido, the northernmost of that country’s four main islands. While ice hockey in Japan is certainly not followed at the levels of other organized team sports such as baseball and soccer, it is growing in the public consciousness. As one would imagine, the colder climate of Hokkaido lends easily to the playing of winter sports, and we're told that hockey's following is stronger there than in any other region of Japan.
After reaching high school age, Shuhei was a one-sport man. It was purely ice hockey for him. Luckily, his high school, Komazawa Tomakomai Senior High School (colloquially called 'Komadai Tomakomai') can boast of a pretty impressive sports pedigree, being famous throughout Japan for developing national championship-winning baseball teams, outstanding speed skaters, soccer athletes, and naturally, ice hockey players. One sports alumna has even parlayed her fame into a high-profile position in Japan's legislature.
As could be expected of any top athletic program, when we spoke with Shuhei at camp about his high school experience he first mentioned the strenuous practices he endured. However, and equally important to him, was an environment in which his head coach nurtured the young men, and provided as many lessons on "life skills" as hockey ones.
After graduating, Shuhei took these lessons and moved on to Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, a radical departure from his hometown. Shuhei was able to adapt, though, playing well enough to earn steady ice time and eventually the captaincy of the Waseda hockey team. In his most recent campaign at Waseda, Kuji tallied 31 goals and 9 assists in just 28 games. He even played well enough to catch the eye of the Japanese men's national ice hockey team head coach, Mark Mahon.
In a limited 5 game stint, and by his own admission playing a bit nervously, Kuji netted two goals and an assist while playing for that team in the 2009 IIHF Division 1A World Championships this past April.
So it is with this history of success that Shuhei Kuji made his first trip to the United States this month, and by invitation of the Islanders was welcomed to his first NHL camp. And while he will readily admit that playing in the NHL some day is a goal of his, he still has some work to do.
He spoke of the step up in competition that he experienced when transitioning from the college game to the World Championships; however having now experienced a taste of it, he didn't feel that the NHL game's speed was beyond his ability. We were able to confirm this with veteran Inside Hockey writer Brad Kurtzberg, who said that Kuji certainly "did not look out of place" this week among the other Islanders prospects and draft picks. We too noted Kuji's acceleration, speed, and agility during one drill as he rushed down the right side boards. One thing that Kuji did express though was how much faster plays develop and decisions need to be made at the NHL level, echoing a sentiment we used to hear from Kyle back in his AHL to NHL days. However, the challenge of the NHL game is something that Kuji uses as a motivational tool to improve his own skill set, he claims.
If there is a 'knock' on Kuji, it would have to be his size. Listed in the camp's media guide at 5'7" and 160 pounds, he will have to bulk up in order to succeed in today’s rough-and-tumble NHL. There have, of course, been highly skilled smaller-sized forwards who have excelled in the league in the past (Theoren Fleury and Jason Blake quickly come to mind), but we imagine they are the exceptions rather than the rule.
When mini-camp closes on Wednesday (7/15), it's back to Japan for Shuhei. He has Waseda exams to conquer when he arrives in Tokyo, and a senior season of ice hockey to complete.
We will be watching Shuhei's career from this point forward, regardless of where it takes him. Hopefully, this delightful young man will reach his goal of playing in the NHL, whether it's with the Islanders or another team. As we concluded our interview, we wished him success for now and the future. It is our sincere hope that he was able to exhibit some abilities at this mini-camp that caught someone's eye, and that they have tucked his name away for consideration in the near future.
(We extend our gratitude to Shuhei, his translator Taka Shirai, and the New York Islanders for making this interview possible).