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Hashimoto's big step is one for self and home country

by Brad Friedman / Columbus Blue Jackets

You may have heard this one before: a foreign-born hockey player traveled thousands of miles in the hopes of earning a spot on an NHL roster.

The usual countries that come to mind include: Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and several more hockey-crazed nations. All of the aforementioned countries have produced some of hockey’s brightest stars. Just last season, the statistical categories of goals, plus/minus, wins and shutouts were led by players who hail from outside of North America.

The Blue Jackets brought 28 hopeful prospects to Nationwide Arena for their annual development camp, a group comprised of representatives from 10 different nations -- but one of them stands out among the rest.

Sapparo, Japan’s own Ryo Hashimoto.

His hockey story began at the age of six. The now-21-year old defenseman admired the physicality of the game and from the time he first tightened his skates, he was hooked.

After graduating high school, Hashimoto joined the Japanese National Hockey program and as of today, he has appeared in 26 games for his home country. During the 2011-12 season, Hashimoto joined the Oji Eagles of the Asia League, an 11-year old league comprised of eight clubs from China, Japan and South Korea.

The Asia League was created out of necessity when leagues in those three countries lost popularity and needed to join forces to keep hockey alive in the region.

Hashimoto watched the NHL from across the Pacific, quickly becoming a fan of what he described as the best league in the world. He also became a fan of former NHL greats like Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic.

“Those guys are such great players,” Hashimoto said, with the assistance of a translator.

In his first year with Oji, Hashimoto played in 29 games, recorded five assists and posted a plus/minus of +4. The Eagles went 36-21-1 with a goal differential of +59 during the regular season, and their 75 points earned the top seed in the playoffs -- where they eliminated Nippon Paper Cranes 3-0 in a best-of-five series in the first round before capturing the Championship Trophy with a 3-1 series win over the Nikkō Ice Bucks.

Since joining Oji, Hashimoto has played in 109 games, totaling 7-31-38 with a plus/minus of +61. Though his mind was focused on the ALH, NHL games were frequently playing on his television.

Hashimoto prides himself on his speed, but said it's the pace of NHL practices that he has found most difficult.

“The skating speed, the passing speed, the shooting speed,” Hashimoto said. “Everything is new to me.”

Hashimoto’s speed has been on display through the first two days of development camp, but picking up on the NHL practice routine hasn’t been easy, either -- especially because of the language barrier.

“There are a lot of one-way answers,” Hashimoto admitted. “I tried to explain something to my teammate and when he finally answered, I couldn’t understand.”

Columbus development coach Chris Clark expected Hashimoto to have some difficulty keeping up with the language, but he and the rest of the coaches have been impressed by Hashimoto in his first-ever trip to the United States.

“Once you’re on the ice, hockey is hockey,” Clark said. “You see what a drill is the first time and then you go right into it.”

Blue Jackets assistant athletic trainer Nates Goto first brought Hashimoto to Clark’s attention and has been helping the young prospect settle into camp. It's a culture shock in some respects and a terrific learning experience at the same time, and the Blue Jackets want to make sure Hashimoto gets the absolute most out of development camp.

Hashimoto would love to blaze a trail as an Asian-trained hockey player in the NHL one day, and taking part in this week's camp has given him an idea of what it takes. Only one Japanese-born player has logged time in the NHL, and that was goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji, who made history on January 13, 2007 when he became the first Japanese hockey player to start an NHL game when his Los Angeles Kings fell 6-5 to the St. Louis Blues.

Yasuhiro Umeta, vice chief secretary of the Asia League, traveled with Hashimoto to Columbus and noted that the league is going through a transitional period. He's hopeful that if the league improves over time, the possibility of players making the jump to the NHL won't be such a far-fetched idea.

“The (Asia League) is trying to turn into a real professional league,” Umeta said. “Within the next three years, a big turning point will come up. That is what I’m hoping for.”

Hashimoto, who is paying his own way to development camp, isn't concerned that the Asia League-to-NHL pipeline is slow developing. He's focused on his own path, and though he has no idea what the future holds for him or Japanese hockey, he's excited to take this step and help put his home country on the hockey map.

Clark said he would not be the least bit surprised to see Hashimoto or another Asian-trained player break into the NHL sometime soon.

“Our game is global,” Clark said. “Down the line, it’s going to be an avenue.”

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