I’m a big believer in the power of sports to bring people together. There is something magical in unifying a group with diverse backgrounds toward a singular goal.
The Islanders, from what I can tell, believe in this message as well. This past week I had the pleasure of again covering Prospect Mini-Camp at Nassau Coliseum. It’s a weeklong event designed to showcase new draft picks, prospects, and local players in a professional atmosphere. It’s also a great chance for fans, scouts, and management to have a look at players they may not yet be fully familiar with. In short, it’s a look into the future.
The Blue and White Scrimmage and Skills Competition, held on Saturday night, caps off the week.
Invited by the New York Islanders, players travel for the camp from near and far. Hockey hotbeds such as Sweden, Russia, and Canada, are normally, of course, represented. Some non-traditional areas produced players this year as well, like Lithuania, Switzerland, and Japan.
Anyone who knows me would say I like to focus on the Japanese sports scene. So I took some interest when I saw that Mei Ushu had been invited to join the festivities.
Mr. Ushu is a 6’0”, 196 pound ninensei (“second year player,” or sophomore) who plays his college hockey at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. He’s a 20-year-old defenseman who has also been selected to his homeland’s national team.
When I first met him early in the week, his size caught my attention. Coupled with his youth, I realized that just those two factors could add up to him being a legitimate NHL prospect down the road.
When speaking to him more in-depth a second time, after he had completed the scrimmage and skills events, he mentioned that he would like to add some more muscle and work on his skating. It’s a fairly common sentiment among many of the young players and prospects.
Nerves, he admitted, were a problem prior to playing on the Nassau Coliseum ice, but Coach Jack Capuano said that Ushu handled himself nicely and “fit in just well” in the scrimmage game (played in front of 5,000+). Both men admitted to having bit of a language barrier, but Mei told me that he seemed to become more comfortable with his surroundings as the week went on. He and his mates found ways to communicate.
This was his first trip to the United States, I was told.
One final thing that troubled Ushu was the size of the rink. In Japan they play with the wider, international size hockey rink (200 feet x 98 feet). He seemed to adjust well, though I did see him make one error near his own blue line very close to the sideboards.
Asked what he’ll take away from the experience, he mentioned that he learned how to prepare better for games mentally, and picked up tips on puck movement from his defensive teammates.
He’ll return to Japan on Tuesday of this week. His immediate plans are to continue playing for Waseda, and he will attend some camps for Asia League ice hockey and Japan’s Under-22 team.
I hope he will return to Long Island next year, so we can see what progress he has made. I also hope he continues to chase his goals, perhaps even as far as becoming the first Japanese defenseman to play in the National Hockey League.
He was a pleasure to meet and speak with, and I wish him well.