All in the hockey family: Yoshi’s Story

By Sean Neumann

Wherever hockey exists, Yoshi Shibata finds a home.

At just 22 years old, Shibata has a long list of places he’s lived in the name of hockey: his home country of Japan, Canada, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Boston. But now, Shibata’s journey has led him to Illinois.

There’s only been one Japanese-born player to ever start a game in the NHL, and only three have ever been drafted since the league began in 1917 — one of whom was made up by Buffalo Sabres general manager George Imlach during the 1974 draft as a joke. But to Shibata, hockey isn’t a joke.

The game has dictated the direction of his life, despite how unlikely it was for a kid from Japan to fall in love with hockey — a game that, according to the International Ice Hockey Foundation, only 7,746 men play in a country of 127 million people.

“If you ask a lot of people if they’ve ever seen hockey (in Japan), they’d probably say no,” Shibata said. “Live or on TV.”

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Shibata, standing at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, laughs at the notion of hockey being popular in his native village, Kawuizawa. Yet, the game’s lack of popularity never stopped him from pursuing his love for the sport.


Love at first sight

Shibata’s interest in the game was sparked by the 1998 Winter Olympics.

The Winter Games were hosted in Nagano, Japan, the prefecture where Kawuizawa is located. It was the first year NHL players were allowed to participate in the Olympic Games and Shibata took an interest, attending games in person.

After the Olympics, Shibata began playing at newly constructed outdoor rinks with friends, and his interest quickly turned to passion. While other kids were playing baseball and soccer, Shibata found himself on the ice.

“I wasn’t good enough to (continue) play baseball,” Shibata laughed. “I was playing baseball and hockey, but I was obviously better at hockey.”

But Shibata didn’t just decide to continue playing hockey, he began living for it.


The chase

By the time his freshman year of high school was over, Shibata had his bags packed and moved to Canada without even knowing how to speak English. It was a risk, but one Shibata was willing to take in order to land himself in the center of the hockey world.

“When I was in Canada, it was completely different,” Shibata remembered. “It’s a small world, so I made a bunch of friends.”

Although Shibata was able to easily make friends through hockey, his decision to chase the game all the way to Canada meant leaving behind his family in Japan.

With the 15-hour time difference between Nagano and Champaign, Shibata is only able to see his family face-to-face on Skype about twice a month.

“It’s kind of hard,” Shibata said. “Once in a while, I do Skype, but most of the time my mom or dad just text me.”

Shibata moved in with a homestay family his high school provided but didn’t find it as helpful as the hockey families he eventually lived with during his career in junior hockey. Shibata said he still keeps in touch with the families he lived with during his junior career. His first call in the case of an emergency would still be to his house mom in Minnesota.

While Shibata has been able to fill the void of a family with the extended one he’s met through hockey, there was still one major adjustment to be made: learning English.

“I just knew ‘Hello, how are you?’” Shibata remembered about first coming to North America. “If some people came up to me and asked, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ I’d probably have no idea what they were saying.”

Shibata said he failed all his classes in his first semester during the transition into a new continent, culture and language.

“I ended up doing OK in high school, though,” Shibata said. “It’s not like I do anything special. I just like hanging out with hockey guys, and that’s how I learned how to speak. Reading and writing is a whole different world, though.”

Shibata still reads most things in Japanese, having to translate his homework or even look up summaries of readings online just to get by in class.

“If I tried (to read) the whole thing, I’d have no idea,” Shibata said. “So I read the summary first and then have an idea of what’s going on, and then I read it.”

After learning the language through his teammates and coaches in high school, Shibata went on to the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League where he was an all-star and the captain of the Cranston Reds, a junior-level team in Rhode Island. Last season, Shibata played with the Edina Lakers, a junior team in Minnesota, where he was the team’s assistant captain, led the team in points (48) and won Edina’s Laker of the Year award for the 2011-12 season.

With some help of Edina’s head coach Joe Long, Shibata was recruited to play at Long’s alma mater, Hamline University — the school where Shibata said the tutors had the most impact on his learning English. 


Small world, Big Pond

Although his education was going well, the experience with Hamline’s D-III hockey program wasn’t what he had hoped for, and that’s what mattered most. He decided to leave after only one season, in which the Pipers went 1-19-5.

Illinois head coach Nick Fabbrini said he didn’t know much about Shibata when the sophomore first expressed his interest in coming to Illinois, and Fabbrini took a leap of faith, giving him a spot on the team. Shibata was taking a leap of faith as well; Fabbrini didn’t guarantee him any ice time.

“His resume spoke for itself,” Fabbrini said. “I’d done a little bit of research on him and heard some good things, but the first time that I saw him skate was the first practice after break. Right away, he stood out with how well he skates and he can shoot the puck, so on our ice that makes you an asset.”

With Fabbrini’s trust, Shibata landed a spot on the Illini roster, replacing defenseman Kyle Clark both on the roster and off the ice, moving into the apartment Clark left behind when he transferred schools.

The world beyond The Big Pond has been the “hardest part” for Shibata thus far. He’s had to adjust to a new campus and organizing a schedule that balances school and hockey. 

On the ice, Shibata’s troubles with communication disappear, according to both Shibata and Fabbrini. 

“I think he understands everything I yell at him,” Fabbrini joked.

But in conversation, Shibata’s English is hesitant — pausing before each response to find the correct words to say. Reading and writing prove to be an even greater challenge.

Without being able to understand a lot of written homework assignments, Shibata’s academics rely heavily on help from teaching assistants and tutors that aren’t able to give Shibata as much detailed attention as the tutors at Hamline, due to the large student population at Illinois.

“It’s been two weeks since school started, so I’m trying to get used to the lifestyle,” Shibata said. “When I come to practice, I’m exhausted from just being in school from nine to three and then having to go back (to get help from TAs).”

And with his parents in Japan, Shibata’s obligations go beyond what most University students are used to. On top of school and his hockey club activities this past week, Shibata has had to worry about paying his bills on time and transferring his insurance after yet another move.

But according to Shibata, it’s all worth it when he’s on the ice and skating — one of the strength’s in Shibata’s skill set that Fabbrini values most.

After 11 months off from hockey, Shibata returned to the ice, joining Illinois on Jan. 17 against the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs. Less than 24 hours later, still using the stick Hamline issued him, Shibata had already tallied his first two points as an Illini when he registered two assists against Eastern Illinois.

“I’m having a good time so far here, even though I wasn’t doing pretty good this weekend,” Shibata said after the game. “Honestly, it’s better than nothing. I should’ve had a couple goals, though.”

Shibata hasn’t thought about his future beyond Illinois, but the idea doesn’t seem to scare the 22-year-old, who has been able to make three separate countries and countless ice rinks his home. 

The Illini aren’t interested in seeing their new teammate leave any time soon, having won four of their last six games since the sophomore joined the team. 

“He definitely brings a lot of good experience and a lot of leadership,” said defenseman Cody von Rueden. “He’s an older guy, too. It’s always a huge addition for us when we can get guys like that.”

Senior goaltender Nick Clarke said Shibata has been fitting in great with the team off the ice, being able to hang out with Clarke and other players on the team often as neighbors.

“He’s a great kid,” Clarke said. “Everyone likes him and everyone enjoys his presence. Even though he’s a first-year on the team, he’s still a leader.”

Shibata’s even becoming a fan-favorite, as Illini hockey fans who communicate with him via Twitter have already started to make the sophomore forward feel at home.

“If you play hockey, it’s pretty easy to make friends,” said Shibata, leaning against the wall of the locker room that holds 31 new members of his extended hockey family. 

“I fit right in.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.