They’re big in Japan

A week in Japan gave the Waterloo Wolves Minor Bantam AAA team some needed motivation as they battle through the Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario finals this week.

The team, which includes nine players from Woolwich, won the Toyota Hockey Championship back in November over Kitchener, earning them an all expenses paid trip to Japan to play the Tomakomai Allstars and experience Japanese culture.

The Wolves lost both games to the Allstars, 7-2 and 9-2, but they’re not dwelling on it. They’re using the experience to help them improve, which is good timing because they’re down 2-1 in a best-of-seven-games series versus the London Jr. Knights.

Coach Todd Townsend says the boys represented themselves, the team, and the community well through their travels.

“I couldn’t say enough good things about how well orchestrated the trip was. Every little detail was just over the top. Anything we wanted was ready to go: buses, meals, the whole thing,” Townsend said.

The 17 players and five coaches arrived late at night their first day, so they checked into their hotel. The next day they went to check out the local junior high. They went into their classes and did an English class and learned how to do some Japanese writing.

“From a culture perspective there was lots for the kids to do. That evening we had a welcome reception where the other team came in and then the boys had dinner together, introduced to each other. And where I thought there would be some social awkwardness because language is an issue for sure, they don’t speak a ton of English and we don’t speak any Japanese, but the boys hit it off incredibly well,” Townsend said.

They visited a Buddhist temple where a monk took them through their meditation process, everything from how to enter the building to how to bow to how to clear your mind for 15-minute stretches of time.

“To get the guys to do that, to be quiet for 10 and 15 minutes was something in itself. They had a zillion questions for the Buddhist monk afterwards. They were really inquisitive and really into doing those types of things,” Townsend said.

One of the highlights of the trip for many of the players was the home visit portion. Families welcomed the team into their home in small groups for a meal. They prepared some traditional Japanese food as well as some North American food.

“The boys tried different types of things. Then they went outside, they played a little road hockey, they got some Xbox in playing hockey Japan versus Canada on the Xbox, things of that nature, and then some of the local crafty games that those guys play over there,” Townsend said.

In terms of the Japanese team’s hockey skills, Townsend expected them to be good, but not quite as good as they were. He says they are easily the best team they’ve played all season.

“It’s nothing that they’re doing different. It’s they do it with such precision and you can tell it’s repetitive and they’ve just got to work at those things in practice and get better at it. And when you work at things like that in practice you get better at them in a game,” Townsend said.

At their practice on Monday night at RIM Park, some of the players explained what their favourite parts of the trip were.

“Definitely family visit, and going to the temple,” said Brody Waters.

“The home visits and hanging out with all the boys over there,” added Owen O’Donnell.

He notes the hot springs were probably his favourite destination on the trip.

“Definitely the school visits or the home visits. I just liked seeing the difference between the homes and the schools from in Canada. It’s a lot more strict there in the schools, but then at home it’s a lot of the same with the respect. Everything’s about family at home,” Brezynskie said.

And they can all agree that speed was the determining factor in the opposing team’s wins.

“Oh they were fast. They were really fast.  Their speed was just killer. We played fast teams before, but nothing compared to that,” Brezynskie said.

Waters says he could tell the Japanese team trained a lot harder because they kept the same high speed throughout the full 60 minutes.

“They taught us how to move our feet and play with a faster team from a defensive standpoint,” O’Donnell said.

It was a good experience to be able to play such a fast, skilled team because the team they’re playing in the finals plays a lot, Brezynskie adds.

O’Donnell says all that time travelling together on planes and buses helped the team come together more. And the boys didn’t have to worry about any homesickness as they felt instantly welcome in a foreign country.

“I just thought the people were great there. They were so nice and they welcomed us. Even the families in the homes they welcomed us as their own kids and you felt like a part of the family. It made you feel special,” Brezynskie said.

Waters says that people always claim Canadians are nice, but he thinks Japanese are even nicer.

The boys, especially those with blonde hair, also got some unexpected attention from the girls in Japan.

“We felt like rock stars. We didn’t really know what to expect. We got a warning on it but then we’d walk into the mall and there would be girls screaming and chasing us for pictures. That was pretty fun,” O’Donnell said.

“When we walked out of the dressing room they’d go up and ask for your autograph,” Waters said.

“That was awesome. They were all over us and you just felt like a rock star walking into the schools, everyone was looking at you. All the girls were screaming and wanting to take pictures with you,” Brezynskie said.

The Waterloo Wolves continue their Alliance finals tonight (Thursday) at RIM Park, with a 7:30 p.m. puck drop.

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