To pursue his hockey career, Japanese star Yuri Terao traded in the Far East for the Midwest.
Terao, who was at Islanders mini camp in the first week of July, had outgrown hockey in his native Japan, so the move to Waterloo, Iowa – to play for the USHL’s Black Hawks – was a necessary one. But this was no easy move. He came over with no English, no family and no translator, completely immersing himself into cornfield culture.
“It was his first time playing abroad in the United States and also first time living abroad, too,” Terao’s translator Taka Shirai said. “In the beginning it was tough, but he learned a lot.”
Everything had changed for Terao: different country, different culture, new family and on top of that, he had to adjust to the North American style of hockey. He’d gone to two New York Islanders mini camps in the past, which helped, but drills can only prepare a player for so much. Even the ice is different here.
“In Japan we have international size, but here it’s NHL size,” Terao said through Shirai. “Physically, everyone is bigger here. It’s not really tough, but he needed to adjust.”
Black Hawks coach PK O’Handley had to teach Terao his team’s systems by drawing them out on whiteboards and looping in his translator on a video chat to convey the details. Keep in mind, this was a first for O’Handley – who has coached in the USHL for 20 years – as Japanese players are still a rarity. So far only one Japanese player – goalie Yutaka Fukufuji – has laced up his skates in the NHL.
“The language was a challenge for him, but I thought Yuri and his teammates really worked together,” O’Handley said. “When it comes to the boards and video he did understand that. He’s a real intelligent hockey player, so that wasn’t as hard as you think. Making him understand the words of let’s say where you pressure on the forecheck, we needed his agent and interpreter to help us with that.”
O’Handley said he picked up the North American game relatively quickly. Terao scored 40 points (18G, 22A) in 45 games.
“He skates pretty well and he shoots the puck like an NHLer now,” the coach said. “It’s more and more understanding the North American game, which he's committed to. I give him full credit for that, he did everything that was asked of him that way. It’s different. He played a physical game for us. Wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there, but he’s an offensive guy long term.”
If teaching him on the ice was O’Handley’s job, then integrating him into American culture was really a job for his teammates. Ben Newhouse, who shared a billet family with Terao, said in the beginning his Japanese roommate didn’t understand “hello.”
“Obviously it was difficult at the beginning to talk to him and communicate with him,” Newhouse said. “But that was September and by November it was easier and he was starting to figure it out a bit more after being immersed in the English language 24 hours a day.”
By the end of the season, Newhouse said they were having conversations, but even with the communication barrier, Newhouse said Terao was one of the most popular players on the team and the two became friends, with Newhouse bringing him home to Edina, MN (hometown of Anders Lee and Kieffer Bellows as well) for Christmas.
“Yuri has a great personality. Once he feels comfortable in a situation all of the guys loved him,” Newhouse said. “It was fun and different to have someone on our team from Japan and be able to learn something different than you would if he wasn’t on the team.”
As a teambuilding exercise, Terao taught the Black Hawks how to make sushi.
“His teammates were unbelievable for him,” O’Handley said. “They adopted him a bit and I think every guy that played on our team would say he might be the funniest guy. He really loosened up as the season went on.”
So how did Terao wind up in Iowa in the first place? After a pair of stints at Islanders mini camp, Bridgeport Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson recommended him to O’Handley. O’Handley made a call to his agent and after seeing some tape, decided to bring him on. The Black Hawks finished third in the Western Conference and Terao finished sixth on the team in points.
“He’s a good player,” O’Handley said. “I think he could play pro. He still needs more time obviously, but he’s a good player.”
Terao received offers from Division 1 schools, but his pro days in Japan make him ineligible for NCAA play. Terao’s camp is still determining the next step, possibly the ECHL or the AHL.
“It was a good year,” Terao’s translator said. “He definitely improved a lot mentally and physically and of course as a hockey player he thinks he’s better.”
With a successful year stateside under his belt, the next move won’t feel so daunting.