The Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH) recently started its eighth season. The first games of 2010-11 were played last Saturday, with six of the circuit's seven teams in action. Clubs will play a 36-game regular-season schedule between Sept. 18 and Feb. 20. The top four teams will then play best-of-5 playoff semifinals and finals to crown the league champion.
For the first time in league history, a non-Japanese team enters the season as the defending champion. South Korean entry Anyang Halla captured the crown in 2009-10. While the core group of Halla's championship squad remains intact and the club enters the season as the team to beat, there are three other clubs that can be considered legitimate contenders.
"Apart from our club, all the other clubs made significant upgrades, especially with their imports. I really think it's going to be a challenging season for Halla," said Sam Kim, the club's English interpreter and assistant general manager.
Following is an overview of the seven clubs in the league, with a focus on their import players and key changes entering the 2010-11 campaign.
Anyang Halla (Courtesy: Anyang Halla)
Anyang Halla (Anyang City, South Korea) -- Over the last few seasons, Anyang has assembled a stable and cohesive group of import players, combined with a smattering of high-skill native Korean talent and supplemented by a hard-working group of Korean role players. In assembling its foreign contingent, the club identified former North American professional players who would be willing to fit in with the Korean culture while bringing their skills to the club for more than one season. The approach has worked, as the club has finished first in the regular season the last two seasons.
North American import players Brad Fast, Brock Radunske, Jon Awe and Dustin Wood, as well as Japanese defenseman Takayuki Ono (who does not count as an import) all have thrived with the team, and their contributions have coincided with the club's rise to the top. While the Asia League primarily exists as a professional league geared toward the development of Japanese, Korean and Chinese pros, the effectiveness with which a club fills its import quota (the allowed numbers vary in descending order from the Chinese, Korean and Japanese clubs in an effort to attain better competitive balance) plays a significant role in its success -- or lack thereof.
No team in the Asia League has been more judicious in its import recruiting than the defending champs. After this season, the league will reduce the number of imports that Halla and fellow South Korean team High1 are allowed from four to three.
The team has made a few roster adjustments heading into the 2010-11 season. The club lost its incumbent starting goaltender, Ho-Sung Son, because of a military commitment. As a result, the team signed Hyun-Sung Eum (the former starter for rival Korean team High1), and also added prospect Sung-Ye Park from Yonsei University. With the signing of Park, the club let go of its former backup, Jung-Mo Kim. In addition, the club also lost long-time starting forward Kyung-Tae Kim during the offseason.
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In preparation for the season, the club invited an experienced North American coach, Alberta University Golden Bears coach Eric Thurston, to run its two-week preseason camp. The team also played a pair of preseason games against Russian second-tier minor-league champion HC Primorye, winning both games (2-0 and 4-2).
Nippon Paper Cranes (Kushiro, Hokkaido, Japan) -- The Canes, ALIH champions in 2008-09, reached the finals again last year in a rematch with Halla, but failed to capture their fourth Asian championship. After the season, assistant coach Sasaki Hiroaki took over as coach from Koji Izawi, who was relieved of his duties.
As with the other Japanese entries in the league (except for the expansion Freeblades), league rules limit the Cranes to two import players. The club released defenseman Pierre-Olivier Beaulieu and signed former Las Vegas Wranglers defenseman Mike Madill. The team lost forward Darcy Mitani as a free agent to High1 and replaced him with former ECHL 40-goal scorer Ash Goldie.
Otherwise, the club has continued to concentrate on recruiting top university players from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido (the closest thing to a Japanese hockey hotbed), and the mainland island of Honshu.
Oji Eagles (Tomakomai, Hokkaido, Japan) -- The most storied team in Japan, tracing its history to 1925, and proud possessors of 34 All-Japan hockey championships (plus 13 in the now-defunct Japan Hockey League), Oji captured its sole ALIH title in the 2007-08 season. As with the Cranes, there's a change behind the bench for Oji this season. Hirono Masaki stepped down as coach and was replaced by assistant Yamanaka Nobuo. Veteran forward Kuihiko Sakuai retired and assumed the open assistant coaching slot.
For economic reasons, the club has scaled back payroll the last few seasons. As was the case last season, the club will not use any import players in 2010-11, although it is allowed to sign two.
Nikko Ice Bucks (Nikko, Japan) -- The Bucks made two of the league's more notable offseason signings, adding former Los Angeles Kings goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji (who spent last season with the Tilburg Trappers in the Netherlands), and former New Jersey Devils prospect Richard Rochefort. The 33-year-old Rochefort played last season for the Augsberg Panthers in Germany's DEL. The team's other import slot will be filled by holdover Bud Smith. Behind the bench, the club has recruited former NHL forward Mark Pederson as an assistant coach.
Founded in 1999, the Bucks have yet to win a championship, but they've often been among the most active in recruiting import players. Past Ice Bucks players of note include long-time NHL forward Shjon Podein (a fan favorite in Japan as well as in North America), and Martin Kariya.
HIGH1 (Chuncheon, South Korea) -- The three-time All-Korea champions have fallen behind archrival Anyang Halla in recent years and approached the offseason eager to improve. The club fired coach Hee-Woo Kim and promoted assistant Yun-Sung Kim. More important, management took an aggressive approach in trying to upgrade the roster and to fill all four of its allotted import spots with impact players.
The club heavily pursued former NHL player Shane Endicott (a veteran of the ALIH), but was unable to land him. The club also unsuccessfully went after T.J Kemp, Kyle Wharton and Dominic D’Amour. Undaunted, High1 continued its search for talent and added several players who should help the club this season.
Most notably, the team signed Atlanta Thrashers 2005 first-round pick Alex Bourret. The 24-year-old right wing underachieved in North America but has the skills to be a dominant Asia League player if he applies himself. The club also released forwards Alex Kim, Trevor Gallant and defensemen Jeremy Van Hoof, and filled their spots with Darcy Mitani (a dual Canadian-Japanese citizen), Bryan Young and Jim Jackson. In goal, the club added depth by signing former Halla goaltender Sun-Ki Kim and former China Dragon player Mitsuaki Inue.
Throughout its history, High1 has maintained a strong relationship with players and coaches in the Czech Republic. The club flew there this summer for its training camp.
Tohoku Freeblades (Hachinohe, Japan) -- The Freeblades entered the ALIH last season following the closure of the venerable Kokudo/Seibu team after a colorful and championship-laden existence. In order to make the new club a little more competitive right away, the ALIH is allowing the Freeblades to have four import players (the number drops to three next season).
After last season, the club added left wing Scott Champagne (to replace departing forward Jon Smyth), and defenseman Cole Jarrett (to replace Steve Munn). The club retained 2009-10 import defenseman Brad Farynuk and forward Bruce Mulherin. The Freeblades flirted with signing center Max Taylor, but the player's concussion history reportedly caused the club to shy away.
In addition to the aforementioned North American players, the Freeblades have lured Japanese forward Tanaka Go back to his homeland. A standout for Seibu, Go spent last season in the German minor leagues.
China Dragon (Shanghai and Harbin, China) -- For a variety of hockey, economic and political reasons, efforts to elevate the caliber of Chinese hockey and improve the performance of the Chinese entries in the ALIH have proven rather difficult so far. The single biggest on-ice reason is that the domestic hockey development programs in Japan and South Korea are far ahead of the one in mainland China -- and the disparity of talent is hard to overcome.
Imagine having a garage hockey team attempt to compete in the ECHL with only a few minor-league caliber players added to the roster and you'll have an idea of the on-ice struggles of the Chinese teams that have played in the Asia League. Only when the club has had a high-caliber import goaltender (such as former NHL player Wade Flaherty) has it been able to avoid getting blown out in virtually every game. Nevertheless, the long-term goal is still to assist Chinese hockey in boosting the caliber of its national program from the junior to senior levels.
Last season, the San Jose Sharks ended their association with the club formerly known as the China Sharks. Subsequently, Chinese officials renamed the club the China Dragon. The team established ties with Belarusian hockey, hiring a Belarusian coach (Andrei Kovalev) and signing six Belarusian players as its imports.
The China Dragon is a near lock to finish in last place again this season. Progress is not yet measured in wins, but in competitive games. The team still has a long way to go to push the Japanese and Korean teams in the league.