Japan Cup & Yokohama Expansion Energize Uncertain Asia League

After the 2020 Playoffs were postponed and ultimately cancelled in February due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, the Asia League’s restart and schedule for the 2020-21 season continues to face unique and rapidly changing obstacles. With the league’s member clubs hailing from three different countries –– South Korea, Russia, and Japan –– each with differing infection trends and quarantine guidelines, the original hope for a September-October slate of opening games, or even a tentative January start, looks grim.

Head athletic trainer Bill Murray (right) and captain Woo Young Kim, of the Asia League’s Daemyung Killer Whales. The team returned briefly to training camp in August, but their season remains uncertain. (Image courtesy of Daemyung Killer Whales)

Teams in South Korea, after spending six months in quarantine, made a short-lived return to training camps in late August. After a sudden spike in recent weeks, in cases in the country’s general population, they again were forced off the ice. In Japan, in addition to concern for player safety, Tokyo’s hosting of the 2020-now-2021 Summer Olympic Games serves as further reason for abundant precaution. As of late August, South Korea and Russia remained listed in the nation’s expansive entry ban.

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Still, even if the season as fans know it abounds in uncertainty, Asia League hockey and its growth won’t be stalled for much longer. A new team, and one confirmed domestic tournament, are bringing renewed hockey buzz to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Japan Cup 2020

As a silver-lining for what will likely be a full-season cancellation, the Asia League’s Japan-based teams will return to the ice for tournament play: Japan Cup 2020, the league announced on Aug. 20, will run from early October through late December. The five participating teams –– Prince Eagles, Higashi Hokkaido Cranes, Tohoku Free Blaze, HC Tochigi Nikko Ice Bucks, and Yokohama Grits (the Asia League’s newest addition) ––  will play 16 games apiece, with winning percentage deciding the league’s champion. The abbreviated, local return-to-play follows a similarly domestic event currently underway in Russia, the Moscow City Mayor Cup

Japan Cup 2020 represents another chapter in an already-storied Japanese hockey history. Since 1930, the country has held the annual Japan Ice Hockey Championship, a tournament comprising the best Japanese professional, amateur, and university clubs. Beginning in 1982, a women’s equivalent has also been held. From 1966 to 2004, the Japan Hockey League showcased the nation’s professional talent.

Chiho Osawa Team Japan
Team Japan’s Chiho Osawa. The country’s long history of both men’s and women’s hockey adds excitement for Japan Cup 2020 (Ailura, CC BY-SA 3.0 AT (CC BY-SA 3.0 at (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)), via Wikimedia Commons)

Like South Korea, Japanese international play has also steadily improved in recent years. Their Women’s National team, in both 2014 and 2018, qualified for the Olympics. This is all to say: this year’s Japan Cup is welcomed by a vibrant hockey market. 

But perhaps more importantly, the tournament’s success could reinvigorate momentum for a movement that was only recently stymied — the re-formation of an independent Japanese Hockey League. In 2019, as was reported in the Japanese Times, the Eagles, Free Blades, and Ice Bucks were “considering withdrawing from Asia League Ice Hockey and re-forming a domestic league.” (from ‘Three Japan teams consider forming new league,’ The Japan Times 2/12/2019) 

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There have yet to be any official announcements on if South Korea’s teams will participate in any domestic games of their own, nor has there been word on the future plans for Russia’s lone Asia League team, Sakhalin.

A Gritty Yokohama Expansion

Arriving just in time for the Japan Cup is the eighth and newest Asia League franchise, the Yokohama Grits. The team was founded in April 2020 by the Grits Sports Innovators Corporation, an app and website development company. They will become the fifth Japan-based Asia League team, and the first in the greater-Tokyo metropolitan area. 

According to the team’s website, the dual hockey franchise and company will seek not only on-ice success, but to “make Yokohama in winter more cheerful,” and continue to spread the game of hockey throughout Japan’s largest urban market. 

The Grits’ journey begins on Oct. 10 in Tomakomai, in Japan Cup action, against the Prince Eagles. 

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