Fostering continued local interest in hockey, a key element of Japan’s Winter Olympic future
When the puck drops at the Beijing 2022 Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament on February 9, it will mark 24 years since Japan last participated – as host nation of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano – and 42 years since he qualified for Lake Placid in 1980.
If Nikko Ice Bucks COO Takayuki Hioki is successful, 2030 will mark the end of this drought for good.
The businessman and entrepreneur, whose resume includes producing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, is optimistic about Sapporo’s chances of receiving the Milan-Cortina 2026 torch and to host the Winter Games in eight years – and what it could mean to revive declining national interest in hockey.
“Hockey is the most valuable winter sport, and building momentum for hockey in Japan for the Winter Olympics will be mandatory,” Hioki told the Japan Times in a recent interview.
“I think the chances (of accommodation in Sapporo) are very high and we have to prepare for that.”
Hioki’s warning comes at a watershed moment for men’s ice hockey in Asia.
Since 2004, the region has pinned its hopes on the Asia Ice Hockey League (ALIH), which was formed after the collapse of domestic leagues in Japan and South Korea, to raise the region’s level of play and improve his Olympic performances.
However, these improvements have yet to materialize. Asia’s last three Olympic appearances have been through automatic host qualification: Japan finished 13th out of 14 in Nagano while South Korea was last of 12 teams at Pyeongchang 2018.
Even host country China’s place in Beijing was not confirmed until December after International Ice Hockey Federation officials repeatedly voiced concerns over the team’s preparations, fearing embarrassing routs at the hands of the United States and Canada.
This is despite efforts to build the Chinese program through Kunlun Red Star, which has competed in the Eastern European Continental Hockey League since 2016, and China Dragon, backed by the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, which participated in ALIH between 2007 and 2017 and briefly partnered with the San Jose Sharks of the NHL.
No matter how China fares at these Olympics, Hioki thinks the future is bright for sport in the world’s second-largest economy – and that Japan should take note of how foreign countries build venues that can generate revenue. income all year round.
“I believe the hockey business will grow in China because the number of venues is much higher,” he said. “(The venues) in China are much better because American event companies like AEG are doing joint ventures with Chinese companies, so it will be at least a venue with a capacity of 15,000 people. … In Japan, the government owns the venue and doesn’t allow us to change anything.
“Every time I visit games in the US you see the big monitors everywhere and the sound system is great. And that’s how you monetize a 365 day operation. Every day you have football games, basketball games , hockey games, women’s sports, concerts, political rallies.
“The idea is that they can monetize and distribute that content, but Japan is not at that level.”
Although Japanese teams dominated ALIH in its early years – winning its first six championships – recent results have favored Korean powerhouse Anyang Halla as well as PSK Sakhalin, based in the eastern city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Russia.
But with the league on hold since the start of the pandemic, Hioki thinks it’s time to rethink the Asian hockey schedule to create a schedule that emphasizes both domestic and international play – much like the one that already exists for football.
“We don’t need to kick ALIH out, it’s a fantastic global opportunity, with different styles (of play) and different things,” he said. “But we don’t need to base everything (around that) from the start of the season to the end.
“I told ALIH that we should create a pool system or an Asian championship, like the J. League (of football) and the Asian Champions League.”
One of the keys to rekindling local interest will be creating a stable business environment. Japanese hockey suffered a major blow when longtime patron and owner of the Seibu Prince Rabbits, Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, former president of the Japanese Olympic Committee and a key figure in the successful Nagano 1998 bid, was arrested for securities fraud in 2005.
Tsutsumi’s downfall, combined with the 2008 financial crisis, forced two-time ALIH winners Prince Rabbits to disband after the 2009 season, while Nippon Paper shut down its four-time champion Cranes in 2019 – only to that the club appears again the following season under the name of East Hokkaido Cranes.
The Ice Bucks are one of the few professional teams to achieve financial stability, with Hioki rebuilding the club’s business operations after being hired in 2010 by legendary football commentator Sergio Echigo – who was chairman and chief executive at the time. from Nikko.
“At the time, only Nikko was a professional team while the others were corporate teams like in American Football’s X League,” Hioki said. “The problem was that hockey teams were previously owned by Seibu Group or Oji Paper… Only the Bucks were motivated to run the team professionally.
“My background on the international business side didn’t work with people who just lived (in the hockey community). I felt like a square peg in a round hole, telling the league that they needed to change the way they operated, because I didn’t think that model would be (sustainable) in the next 20 years.
Over time, Nikko’s successes – including in 2015, when it became the first-ever professional team to win the All-Japan Ice Hockey Championship – inspired other teams to follow. The Oji Eagles became the last former Japan Ice Hockey League team to make the switch when they became the Red Eagles Hokkaido in 2021. The Yokohama Grits brought hockey back to the greater Tokyo area when they were founded in 2019, but Hioki hopes to see more exposure. for sports in the metropolis and other big cities like Osaka.
“I know the hometowns are based around the factories (of the clubs’ former parent companies), but we have to have centralized matches in the Tokyo area and even in Osaka,” he said, “and then we need to increase league exposure, maybe four times a year, with centralized play.
“We have to spend money to bring people in. Exposure, marketing and planning are very important, and how to get money from outside the hockey industry…no one has worked on that in the last 40 years.
Even more important to building Japan’s programme, particularly with just eight years on the clock before the hypothetical Sapporo Games, will be the unification of national training strategies and a stronger focus on giving the stars of 2030 more time on ice.
“We have to focus on 14, 15, 16 year olds and not put veterans in the national team,” Hiyoki said, “and the training system has to be a system, or the Asian League teams at the Japan must work together to build a road to achieve this Olympic status.
But even as Hioki urges Japanese hockey to revive its ethos, he notes that a holistic solution – rather than one focused entirely on the Olympics – cannot be the end goal if success is to be achieved. long-term.
“A difficulty in Japan is the cycle of the fan base. In truth, they love the Olympics too much, and they just see the middle, then forget about it in four years, then see again,” he said.
“Leagues, federations and associations think of medals first, and the club is thought of as a training ground. But the clubs spend the money, they pay the players and they build the fanbase of the sport.
“The federations need to respect the professional teams more, because the most important thing is a balance and an integration of the league and the federation. Otherwise, it is always difficult to build a sustainable sport.
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2022 Beijing Olympics, Japan Ice Hockey League