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Hashimoto has memorable trip to Blue Jackets camp

by Craig Merz

COLUMBUS -- What little he knew of the NHL, a 10-year-old Ryo Hashimoto learned from viewing a highlight video at home in Sapporo, Japan.

"I watched a lot of games but it was the same tape over and over again," he said Tuesday through a translator. "Now I can pick up the computer and follow on"

Hashimoto got a chance this week to see the NHL firsthand as a free-agent invitee to Columbus Blue Jackets development camp that ended Thursday.

The 21-year-old hopes his efforts eventually lead to a contract with the Blue Jackets, but the Japanese Hockey Federation already has benefitted from his time here.

"People are following him back home," said Yasuhiro Umeta, the vice chief secretary for Asia League Ice Hockey who traveled with Hashimoto and acted as his interpreter.

"I'm so happy he has the opportunity. He thinks he can play here."

Hockey ranks behind baseball and soccer in popularity in Japan. In a nation of 127 million people, the hockey federation reports there are 15,000 hockey players, with nearly a third of them playing at the junior level. They play on 230 rinks, 120 of which are outdoors.

Fortunately for Hashimoto, one rink was close to home in Sapporo, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics.

"I started skating and fell in love with it," he said. "After the free skating the hockey team practiced. So I stayed and watched practice and decided that that's what I wanted to."

Hashimoto worked his way through the federation's development program to represent his country at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship Division I Group B in Poland and has played professionally the past three seasons with the Oji Eagles in the Asia League.

But coming to an NHL camp is a different experience for the wiry defenseman.

"Bigger, taller," he said, describing North American players in English with a smile as he raised his right arm above his head.

At 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, he is an inch taller and weighs the same as forward T.J. Tynan, the shortest player in camp.

Hashimoto was brought to Columbus by Blue Jackets assistant trainer Nates Goto, who during a trip to his native Japan this summer had dinner with a friend, Japanese national team coach Mark Mahon.

"He asked [Umeta] to come to dinner and we discussed how to develop Japanese hockey better. So we thought it would be good to send the young players to the United States," Goto said.

Goto checked with Blue Jackets management and they asked for video of Hashimoto.

"He sent me tape and background information," Goto said. "The first was a couple of clips. Then they said they wanted to see two whole games."

Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark liked what he saw on the videos and offered Hashimoto a spot in camp.

"It seemed like a great idea," Clark said. "He's one of the best in their national program, so why not?"

Hashimoto did not look out of place on the ice although the scrimmages favoring skating over physicality seemed to play to his strengths.

His biggest hurdle was verbal.

"It would be the same as one of us going over there and not knowing the language" Clark said. "He'll have a harder time off the ice. Once you're on the ice, hockey's hockey. You see what the drill's like the first time and get right into it."

Hashimoto agreed.

"With off-ice training I feel like it's a little bit harder to fit in," he said. "But on the ice, I can't understand language-wise but I can fit in with the team, skating style, everything."

Hashimoto is a pioneer of sorts; one Japanese player has made it to the NHL: goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji played four games for the Los Angeles Kings in 2007.

Fukufuji, a 2004 eighth-round pick of the Kings (No. 238) was the second player from Japan to be taken in an NHL draft; the Montreal Canadiens chose defenseman Hiroyuki Miura in the 11th round (No. 260) in 1992.

Hashimoto laughed when questioned about the pressure of a nation watching him.

"I try not to feel it," he said.

At least he can share the burden; this week the New York Islanders invited forward Yuri Terao, 19, to their development camp.

Clark said he sees Japan as a source for players someday, as well as a growing market for the NHL.

"Our game is global," he said. "They're building an international team and they're building their professional hockey. Down the line it's going to be an avenue, so why not jump into it?"

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