When word came down last month that Seibu and its Prince Hotels subsidiary were pulling the plug on their Asia League hockey team, the news hit the players and coaching staff like a Bobby Hull slap shot to the shins.
"It was definitely out of the blue, it was a shocker," said Seibu Prince Rabbits forward Ryan Fujita. "I guess I heard a little rumor about the possibility, but they would always tell us, 'Don't worry, things will be fine,' so I was shocked when they actually came out and said we're withdrawing sponsorship from the team."
His teammate Joel Prpic, a former NHL center, was also stunned by the news.
"The last few years they've been trying to cut the budget, and with the way the economy's been going lately, you could kind of see it coming a bit, but it's still shocking, obviously," said the former Asia League scoring leader. "We've all been here a lot of years and it's like a family."
For Fujita and Prpic, the possible demise of the team is unfortunate, but life will go on for the two Canadians if a company--or companies--cannot be found to take over the club. Fujita, 36, who has played professionally in Japan for 15 years, had already decided to hang up the blades after this season and a seasoned pro like Prpic will no doubt be able to continue his career elsewhere, perhaps joining another Asia League club or moving to Europe.
But for the Japanese players on the squad, the news was particularly crushing.
"My thoughts were with the other guys, the young guys who still want to play hockey and how it really affects them," said Fujita, a former captain of the Saskatoon Blades who played for Japan in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. "Looking at their faces and seeing their minds spin with all the thoughts that were going on, I just wouldn't want to be in their shoes. It's probably not a great feeling."
As Seibu officials continue to search for possible sponsors to take over the team, there are hopes that the club could be rescued. Kirin Brewery is one possible savior, but that is simply speculation at this point and Seibu is not commenting on any negotiations. Published reports have put the figure at 500 million yen a year to operate the club.
Regardless of what happens with the Rabbits, the Asia League, which is currently composed of seven teams based in Japan, China and South Korea, has vowed to go ahead with next season.
"We may have six teams, seven teams or eight teams, but we definitely plan to continue (in 2009-10)," said Kei Matsuura of the Asia League's public relations department. "It depends on what happens with Seibu, and also a team in Fukushima may join the league. That should be decided in April."
While having an Asia League without a team in Tokyo would be comparable to Major League Baseball operating without a club based in New York, the league says it plans on hosting a few games in the metropolis between out-of-town teams in a worst-case scenario. But more significantly than that, there are fears that a decision to fold the Rabbits could start a chain reaction, effectively killing high-level hockey in Japan.
"You lose this team and then maybe Oji and the Nippon Paper Cranes (two long-established teams in Japan) might think maybe they should reconsider their programs, and all of a sudden hockey's non-existent in Japan, and there goes the national team program," said Fujita. "We're already having enough trouble getting support for the national team, and this will just make it that much harder."
Mark Mahon, who has coached Japan's national hockey team since 2004, shares Fujita's concern that this could have a negative ripple effect. For Mahon, who is in Europe with his team right now trying to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Seibu Prince club is home to many of his national team members.
"The Seibu announcement has brought a lot of uncertainty to the sport of hockey in Japan," said Mahon, a Canadian who played professionally in Germany and a former coach of the Nikko IceBucks. "The questions of the viability and sustainability of the sport here are staring us right in the eyes right now. With Seibu providing nine of our national team members, it's a very big concern."
While the current global economic downturn has made casualties of many sports teams in Japan--among the more notable are Honda withdrawing from Formula One and X League football powerhouse the Onward Oaks losing their title sponsor--many involved in the sport of hockey here say the Asia League has also dropped the ball when it comes to marketing the sport.
"With this market being so attractive internationally and with this city being so attractive, I think if the sport was marketed a little more professionally they could definitely play to full houses at Higashi-Fushimi or Shin-Yokohama Skate Center," noted Mahon. "In a city like Tokyo, if you can't get 3,000 people in Higashi-Fushimi every night, that's where you've got to take a closer look at your marketing. The sports sells itself with the speed, the physical play, and people who come out to watch generally come back. I think if it's going to work, it has to be marketed a lot better in the future."