The NHL is the ice hockey professional league, which is one of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada (the MLB, the NFL, and the NBA). Ice hockey is not yet a major sport in Japan, but 23-year-old Yuki Miura, takes a challenge to become the first Japanese NHL player. We asked Miura, who now plays in the national team at an age so young, what thoughts are behind his challenges, his dreams for the future, and how he thinks about sports as a “culture”.
※We interviewed him online, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Steps to the Worldwide Challenge
──So, please tell us about yourself and your current activities.
Miura Sure. Iʼm Yuki Miura. Iʼm 23 years old, and Iʼll b turning 24 this July. Iʼve been playing ice hockey all
my life, and I currently play as a member of the menʼs ice hockey team of Lake Superior State University*1 which belongs to the NCAA Division 1*2 , the top-level league in the United States. I was the
first Japanese to have ever come to this stage. I am also the member of the menʼs national ice hockey team in Japan.
*1 A prestigious team that has won the national championship five times in the past
*2 The top league of ice hockey approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association
──Can you briefly tell us about your career up to now?
Miura I grew up in Tokyo, but in my second year of high school at Waseda Jitsugyo, I quit and moved to Czech Republic. After playing for two and a half years as a member of a team called Kladno, I had a chance to go to the United States, and played for a year in an U-20 top league. I got an offer from a college there, and here I am now.
──I believe ice hockey in Japan is not as well-known as it is abroad, but what made you start it?
Miura I was influenced by my father. He was a professional ice hockey player, and also played as a representative of Japan in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Because of him, I started at a very young age. I think I was 3 or 4 years old.
──Youʼve mentioned going to Waseda Jitsugyo High School. Didnʼt you ever think of going to a place where ice hockey was much popular?
Miura I did. In fact, I was called out to by a strong team in Hokkaido. Back then, it was the mainstream path for players who were successful in Tokyo, to go to a high school in Hokkaido, and come back to one of the Big-Six-Universities, where the strong ice hockey teams were. But I wanted to prove to myself that even if I didnʼt go to Hokkaido, I could still become the strongest ice hockey player in Japan. Also, my father was a coach in Waseda Jitsugyo, and I still wanted to learn from him; that was one of the reasons why I chose this school.
──I see. So the relationship between you and your father was not only “father and son”, but also “player and coach”. What made you quit Waseda Jitsugyo?
Miura First of all, in my second year at Waseda Jitsugyo, I found out about a study-abroad system, where you could go abroad for 2 or 3 weeks during summer break. Students could pick a country they wished to go to, and the school would pay for it. Using that system, I went to Czech Republic. The reason why I chose Czech Republic in the first place was because of the hockey games I watched there when I was in fourth grade. (I had gone there for sightseeing and for the hockey games.) Czech ice hockey is the strongest after North American ice hockey, and the professional games I saw there were amazing. It was the most beautiful ice hockey I had ever seen. The North American ice hockey I had been watching until then were very intense, and the physical contacts within the players were the main part of it. But in Czech, it was rather the neatly passing of the hockey pucks, than the intense crashes, that made the games fun to watch. I was very amazed by the high-quality playing. While being just a fourth grader, I had come to have a dream of playing ice hockey in Czech. So that was why I chose Czech as the country to study in. During my stay in Czech, I was able to join practices in a team called Kladno, which was the team that I eventually would be a part of, and also participated in practice games. Then, the day before my flight back to Japan, the coach asked me if I wanted to stay in the team. That was what made me quit Waseda Jitsugyo.
──How did the people around you react when you told them you were leaving Waseda Jitsugyo?
Miura Well, the ice hockey team in Waseda Jitsugyo was not really blessed with a good environment for practicing. It consisted of both experienced and non-experienced players, and the experienced players lead the team; I was aware that it wouldnʼt be good to leave, being the leading player of the team. In spite of that, my team mates, teachers, and parents all accepted my will to take this chance. I really thank them for pushing my back, knowing that me not being there would create a difficult situation for the team.
──After that, you joined Lake Superior State University, right? Can you tell us more about that?
Miura After playing in Czech for two and a half years, and in the U-20 junior league in the U.S. for a year, I was called out to by several college teams. Lake Superior, which I belong to now, was the first team to have called out to me. Back then, I had been having a really hard time not being able to make achievements playing in the U.S. But during those hard times, Lake Superior really cared about me, and always kept in contact with me, which made me think, “if this team really needs me, I want to do what I can to contribute to it.” That was why I eventually chose to play at this university. I will be a fourth-year student this September, which would be my last year in this team.
「When you experience setbacks, is when you really think about your challenge」
──I assume youʼve had hard times in your experiences abroad, but were there any turning points during that time?
Miura Iʼve had tons, but what I would say for the most part is the fact that I was able to experience setbacks. Iʼve always been in my comfort zone, and even going to Czech, I was able to make achievements to some extent. However, I experienced things like, not being successful at first in the U.S, or not being able to play in a game or even be on the bench because of my injury. I think these were things that I wouldnʼt have been able to experience if I hadnʼt taken the chance. When I feel this way is when things donʼt go the way I want them to, and I think that the times I experience these setbacks is when I really think about why Iʼm making this challenge. When you go abroad, things almost never go the way you plan; things like language barriers get in your way all the time. It means challenging yourself to a higher level, so stumbling is inevitable. But what kept me motivated in my hard times, was the fact that I never stopped thinking about “why” I was where I was. I kept telling myself, “It is me who decided to come here, so I cannot make any excuses.” I believe that having this mindset supported myself throughout my experiences.
──Wow, youʼre a really positive person.
Miura People say that a lot about me, but I was definitely not like that when I was in Japan. But being in tough situations abroad, I started having the mindset that “things donʼt always work out the way you want them to.” I think having this mindset created my positive personality.
──Throughout your experience abroad, were there anything that you realized was good about Japan?
Miura Definitely! The everyday Japanese food, and the warmth and decency of the people were things that Iʼve realized about Japan. But what I especially realized, facing a lot of barriers, was the fact that I had been in such a blessed environment. However, in terms of the sport, the traits of Japanese ice hockey, like its speediness, isnʼt really applicable to the world, and after all, it is necessary to be at the level of the team you belong to. So, I donʼt really try to show the Japanese traits of ice hockey, in the way I play.
Miura This is a little off-topic, but there are experiences that I want to make good use of. Especially, I think that going abroad and getting to experience being a foreigner there was a really special thing for me.
If I see someone in Japan in need of help, I think I would definitely give him or her a hand. The people who always helped me when I was alone abroad and couldnʼt do anything, were my teammates, the host family, and the people I passed by on the streets, and it was a natural habit for them to do that. It made me want to become a person who can always help others when theyʼre in trouble.
「Knowing what you can and cannot change」
──I see you have polished yourself not only as an athlete, but also as a person. Is there anyone youʼve been inspired by through your ice hockey career?
Miura I would definitely say, my father. Heʼs the one who has raised me to be a boy who can have
worldwide perspectives, who understands me the most, and who has been the strictest coach. I wouldnʼt have been able to come this far without his support. The reason why I have a goal of playing in the Olympics is because his playing in the Nagano Olympics made me want to try hard and go beyond him. I wouldnʼt even be here if it werenʼt for my father, so I cannot thank him enough.
Another person whom I got inspired by was a player in Czech named Tomáš Plekanec. He is a veteran player who played for a long time in Montreal Canadiens, a prestigious team, and originally played in Kladno, the team I belonged to in Czech. Once when I was practicing in Kladno, I got to interact and do training with him. He was 178 centimeters in height, which is almost the same as me. He was a little short for a player in Northern Europe, but he was so successful in spite of that, which made me realize how hard he worked. Until then, I had never actually seen the training of top athletes, but I was amused by the amount of practice he did and the effort he put into his trainings. I saw with my own eyes how his efforts had made him what he was, and that gave me a really big impact. Itʼs hard to explain, but there is an energetic, motivating feeling that I get when I meet someone with great passion and skills, and I strongly felt that when I met him. Not only the way he played, or his attitude towards ice hockey, but his personality really captured my heart. Once, I was invited over to his place and got to stay there for about a week. He was also very generous there, and really showed me what a “professional” was.
──Youʼve mentioned earlier about the amount of practice; have you been able to practice during the coronavirus pandemic?
Miura Weʼre not able to use the ice skating rink right now, so I havenʼt been on it since I had come back to Japan for a temporary stay. But that doesnʼt mean I canʼt improve my skills. I canʼt skate, but other trainings are possible to do, so Iʼm continuing to do the best I can to prepare myself by, for example, practicing dribbling or going for a jog. At first, I was worried that my skills would deteriorate in this period, but I have become able to have the mindset of rather using this time to get better. There are some trainings that Iʼve been able to focus on because Iʼm not able to skate. I even think that Iʼve been spending more time holding the stick than I had before, so overall, I think Iʼve been able to stay positive about this situation.
──Wow, you an incredibly positive person…
Miura I guess..! But in the course of challenging, I try to be aware of what I can and cannot change. For example, things like the date of a game, the way the referee might judge, or the opponent, are not things that you can control. But what I can do despite that, is to try to be in my best condition at all times. This is that part where Iʼm able to change and control. I also use this way of thinking at other times in my life.
The fact that you cannot practice on the rink in this coronavirus pandemic, is something that cannot be changed. But what you can change is how you use the time that you have. So, I try to give up and move on at some point, and not waste my energy on something I canʼt do.
──Is there anything you feel towards Japanese ice hockey?
Miura I donʼt think there is a team in Japan that can win against the world quite yet. The training system isnʼt good enough, and the Japanese national players, including me, donʼt have the ability to be constantly playing in the worldwide stage. I think that this is a subject that current national players like me, should work on and improve. The players I want to focus on, are those who started ice hockey in high school or college. I, myself have the experience of playing at Waseda Jitsugyo. Non-experiences players tend to miss chances because a conductive environment for practicing isnʼt provided enough. I had my father as a coach since I was little, the ice rink was close from where I lived, and I got a chance to play abroad; those were some of the reasons Iʼve reached my current level. Of course, Iʼve worked really hard to gain that, but I think I was really blessed with the environment and the people around me. I donʼt want to keep the things I was given just to myself; this time, I want to give back to the people who need it. The players who started from college are ones who realized how fun ice hockey is, and is very passionate about improving their skills. I want to be able to support them. To do that, I try to frequently post training videos on social media, and practice with them. If a player who started from college continued to enjoy ice hockey, they could, for example, tell that to his children in the future. I also think that ice hockey could fulfill the playerʼs life. That is why I focus on the players in college, and I try to think every day about what I can do to those who have passion.
──What would you say the good part about ice hockey is, to someone who doesnʼt know the sport?
Miura Although some might say that the speediness and the physical contact between players are the fun part, but what I personally like about ice hockey is that it enables you to experience the extraordinary. First of all, going to the ice skating rink isnʼt normal, and there, you wear a protective equipment and play at a speed so fast you canʼt even see.
But now, I think ice hockey has become harder to be involved in. No one would say, “hey, thereʼs an ice hockey game going on right now, letʼs go to the rink,” right? So, if we want to raise awareness of ice hockey, we, players, would have to think of ways to interact with those who donʼt have interest.
──It feels like what you were saying about ”the extraordinary” is a common trait among other cultures. We think of sports as one “culture”; what do you think is the effect that sports have on people?
Miura Sports has been a big part of my everyday life. Now, because I cannot play even if I wanted to, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Iʼve realized how important it is for me to stay healthy, and for the world to be peaceful, in order to play sports. So I think that being able to play sports shows that the world is peaceful.
“Culture” is what we create together
──What is “culture” to you?
Miura When you do sports, you interact with people, right? For example, your teammates, coach, opponents, or the audience. You are more recognized than you think you are. I think that sports have the power to expand the relationship within a variety of people who are involved in some kind of way. That is how you can say that sports is one type of “culture”. For example, if itʼs dance, dance is what brings the people together. If itʼs ice hockey, people who share the common language of “ice hockey” get together and create something new; I think this is the ideal way of how “culture” should be. “Culture” is born by people communicating with and seeing each other eye-to-eye, or by the enthusiasm of the people, and I really want to cherish that. Iʼve especially been feeling stronger about this since it has become difficult to see each other that often because of the virus.
Also, I think “culture” is where the crowd shows excitement seeing someone who goes from zero to hero. So, there might be a Japanese ice hockey player who wants to go abroad because he was inspired by me being passionate about challenge outside of Japan. It doesnʼt even have to be ice hockey; I believe there would be people who get inspired to make challenges. Taking chances and experiencing ice hockey at Waseda Jitsugyo, Czech, and the U.S, I got to feel the excitement of new roads opening in front of me. I never want to stop challenging, and I hope that doing this would also lead to new challengers being born.
──Tell us about your visions for the future.
Miura My biggest goal as an athlete is to become an NHL player, and to take the Japanese national team to the Olympics. So this last year is really important for me. In the process of aiming for a professional player in North America, I would first have to make achievements in the college stage. Right now, Iʼm at a crossroads, which means that how much achievement I could make in the remaining year is really important, and is something that I want to focus on. Another thing I want to achieve is to travel around the world in ice hockey. Iʼve played in Europe and North America, so I want to experience that in other areas. I havenʼt decided what I want to do after I quit ice hockey. But as Iʼve mentioned earlier, I want to fulfill my responsibility of handing my experience on to the next generation. There will definitely be something or someone I ought to make an effort to help, and I want to become a person who can always give out a hand.
──Thanks for your time.
Yuki Miura, who aims to become the first Japanese NHL player. His modest and humble attitude towards ice hockey inspires many people that he gets involved with. With his passion to lead a yet miner sport in Japan at the tender age of 23, and his incredibly positive personality, we will definitely see him play active on the world stage in the near future.
Translated by: Sae Furukawa