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Japanese hockey player Takuma Kawai makes his way to the Memorial Cup @NHLdotcom

Gatineau Olympiques defenceman Takuma Kawai may be a Japanese hockey player, but he's sporting a very Canadian gap in his front teeth.

Kawai moved away from his home and family in Eniwa, Japan, at 15 to pursue his dream of playing hockey in Canada.

The 19-year-old is living that dream to the fullest at the Memorial Cup, which is the championship of the 60-team Canadian Hockey League.

"I always wanted to come to Canada and play. When I was little I watched NHL games on TV," Kawai said prior to Gatineau's game against Belleville on Monday.

Japanese-Canadians in hockey are common enough. Devin Setoguchi and Kawai's favourite Paul Kariya are just a couple of them.

But media relations personnel from the CHL were scratching their heads to come up with previous players who were born in Japan and played major junior hockey.

Suffice to say, Kawai is a rarity.

"I think I'm the first Japanese player to play major junior," Kawai theorized. "I know there's half-Japanese, half-Canadian players, but I've never heard of a Japanese-born player."

The five-foot-11, 190-pound Kawai is actually a forward who was moved to defence in February because of injuries on Gatineau's blue-line. He made an impact in Monday's Memorial Cup loss to Belleville with two assists.

He's a role player with a feisty, hard-hitting style - hence the missing teeth - which are desirable qualities whether he plays forward and defence.

"It was kind of hard at first," Kawai said of the switch. "I had to adjust. I'm enjoying it right now. I like to make a pass and make a hit too."

"Now, I have to use my head a lot. (Before) I just skated, made a hit and came back."

Kawai's older brother Ryuichi Kawai is a defenceman for the Seibu Prince Rabbits of the Asian Hockey League. The younger Kawai started following his brother to hockey practice when he was three years old.

It was a monumental event in Kawai's life when goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji became the first Japanese hockey player to appear in an NHL game Jan. 13, 2007.

Fukufuji played the third period of a game against St. Louis and started against Atlanta a few days later.

"Oh, that was pretty exciting," Kawai recalled. "He's a goalie, but he's the first Japanese-born player to play in the NHL. I know him well because he played on my brother's team.

"He's a really good guy."

Fukufuji was the second Japanese player drafted by an NHL team when Los Angeles chose him 238th overall in the 2004 draft. Hiroyuki Miura was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1992, but did not play in the NHL.

Hockey took Kawai on a circuitous route from Eniwa to Gatineau, Que.

John Keightley, owner of the Lac St. Louis midget triple-A team in Montreal, saw Kawai play during a business trip to Japan and invited him to play in Canada.

The catch, says Kawai, was that he had to be Canadian to play for Lac St. Louis, so he ended up practising with the team for a season, while playing midget double-A.

He recalls feeling homesick and not just for his family and friends.

"I missed Japanese food," he said.

When Keightley sold the midget triple-A team and founded Harrington College an hour's drive west of Montreal, Kawai went with him and became a member of the Harrington Junior Icebergs.

Kawai played for Japan in the 2006 world under-18 hockey championship Division 1 and led his team in penalty minutes with 18, while contributing a goal and two assists in five games.

He had a goal and two assists in 25 games for Drummondville last season, but wasn't able to stick with the club and returned to Harrington.

When Junior Icebergs coach Mario Richer resigned to become an assistant coach with Gatineau prior to this season, Kawai followed him to the Olympiques and has five goals and eight assists in 47 games with the club.

His parents, now living in Sapporo, have never been to Canada to see him play.

"They don't know how big it is. Junior hockey isn't that big in Japan," Kawai said.

Kawai doesn't know what his hockey future holds, but he hopes it extends well beyond the Memorial Cup.

"I don't know where I'm going to play next year or the next couple years, but I want to play professional hockey and hopefully in the NHL," he said. "That would be great."

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