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Japanese hockey says goodbye to most famous team

by Bill Meltzer
In most of Japan, hockey is a minor sport. Although many of the game's strategies and traditions seem tailor-made to Japanese culture, hockey has only really taken off on the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Nevertheless Japanese hockey has a much longer tradition than most Westerners realize. Several modern-day professional teams trace their origins back 60 or even 80-plus years.

The recently disbanded Seibu Prince Rabbits weren't Japan's oldest hockey club by a long shot, but the team was arguably the country's most successful modern-era team on the ice, with only Oji Paper (now the Oji Eagles) in the competition.

Seibu's 37-year-old history has come to an end after its parent company, Prince Hotels Inc., was unable to find a new sponsor for the club.

While the hockey team itself was successful, the parent company needed to economize in order to cope with the recession in Japan. But in better economic times, Seibu was one of the most affluent clubs with a budget of $5 million.

The team was even able to afford a preseason camp – with corresponding exhibition games – in Germany.

In its history, the team has changed sponsors, names and locales several times.

In 1972, the team broke off from the Seibu Tetsudo team and was founded as the Kokudo Keikaku Ice Hockey Club in Karuizawa, Nagano. Two years later, the team won its first Japan Ice Hockey League and All Japan championships. In the years that followed, prior to the 2003 foundation of the multi-national Asia League of Ice Hockey (ALIH), the team won 11 Japan League crowns and seven All Japan crowns.

In all, the team took 13 league titles and 11 All Japan championships as well as back-to-back ALIH championships in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

During the course of its history, the team moved to Shinagawa, Tokyo (1984), Yokohama, Kanagawa (1991) and Nishitokyo, Tokyo (2003). Formerly known as the Kokudo Bunnies and Kokudo Lions, the Prince Rabbits have had a complicated history from an ownership and financial standpoint.

The team merged with the Seibu Railways Ice Hockey Club in 2003 and moved its home base to the Suntory Higashi-fushimi Ice Arena in Tokyo. Three years later, then-parent company Kokudo ceased to exist after it was bought out by Prince Hotels. The team then adopted Prince Rabbits as its name.

Perhaps the best-known incarnation of the team was as the Bunnies.

Sporting canary yellow uniforms and a cartoonish rabbit as its logo, the club hardly looked intimidating on the ice. All it did was win hockey games with a mix of native-born, naturalized and import players.

Along the way, the club produced the only two Japanese players to be drafted by NHL teams. Defenseman Hiroyuki Miura was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 11th round (No. 260) of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, but never played at a higher North American level than the ECHL. Twelve years later, the Los Angeles Kings selected goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji in the eighth round (No. 238) of the 2004 Entry Draft. Fukufuji subsequently went on to appear in four NHL games for the Kings during the 2006-07 campaign.

The team also landed numerous import players with North American or European professional experience. The most notable and popular was former Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche center Joel Prpic. The big forward found a home with the club, playing six seasons.

The Bunnies merged with the Seibu Railways Ice Hockey Club in 2003 and moved to the Suntory Higashi-fushimi Ice Arena; renamed the DyDo Drinco Ice Arena in 2006. The club replaced the bunny rabbit with a lion logo and adopted Lions as the team name, until its parent company, Kokudo, ceased to exist in 2006 after a merger with Prince Hotels. The club then adopted the name Seibu Prince Rabbits for the remainder of its history. The club also had a women's team called the Seibu Princess Rabbits.

News about the likely dissolution of the team went public in December of last year. Although the club reached the ALIH finals, attendance dropped.

With the Japanese economy in a tailspin, Prince Hotels was unable to find a new sponsor to buy the club. As a result, the team folded. Since the end of the season, many of the Prince Rabbits players have signed with other ALIH clubs, including six with the Nikko Ice Bucks.

With the demise of Seibu, the Asian League will add a new Japanese team, the Tohoku Free Blades. The team will be based in Koriyama, Tohoku, but it will play in different venues in the northeast region of Honshu (Japan's main island). Several Seibu players will join the Free Blades. The seven-team ALIH consists of four Japanese teams, a pair from South Korea and the China Sharks, which are owned and operated by the NHL's San Jose Sharks.

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