Japanese Player Yushiroh Hirano Follows His Pro Hockey Dreams
The margin for error in the American Hockey League is extremely thin, so it’s no surprise teams will scour locations near and far for talented players.
In the case of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, they’ll look anywhere from 6 miles away to over 6,100.
The team opened training camp for the 2018-19 season Monday at the Toyota SportsPlex with a roster made up mostly of players on tryouts hoping to earn a spot on the team or future consideration. And if Wyoming native Craig Skudalski represented one geographic extreme, then Tomakomai, Japan native Yushiroh Hirano was certainly the other.
“I’m so excited (to be here),” Hirano said with a huge smile shortly after the on-ice sessions concluded. “I got jetlag, heavy legs, everything (with the travel), but I don’t (want to) make (an) excuse being a tryout guy.”
Hirano signed a one-year contract with the Wheeling Nailers in August, but is getting a chance to impress one level up the organizational ladder as he chases his dream of playing in the NHL.
If he realizes that dream, it would be a significant step for the growth of hockey in Japan. According to statistical database Hockey-Reference.com, goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji is the only born-and-raised Japanese player to play at the sport’s highest level; he appeared in four games for the Los Angeles Kings in the mid-2000s.
It’s a reflection of the country’s standing among men’s hockey programs around the world. The International Ice Hockey Federation ranked Japan only 23rd leading into this year’s world championships, behind countries such as Kazakhstan and Great Britain.
But the 23-year-old Hirano was introduced to the sport at a young age — his father played professionally in Japan. He also fell in love with the Pittsburgh Penguins, listing players like Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin among his favorites.
“I started hockey when I was 3 years old, and I would watch the NHL every day,” Hirano said. “And I felt like ... I want to play (in) this league.”
He is known for his booming shot, which he said he would practice around 200 times per day when he was in high school. He hopes to continue improving his decision making with the puck and passing ability.
He’s also very coachable and not afraid to take risks — he once paid his own way to the U.S. to audition for the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms, whom he played for in 2015-16.
“When you tell him something, he does it,” Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli said. “You tell him to go to the line, he goes to the line and doesn’t cheat. You could see he’s from a disciplined environment. He just works hard. Good first day for him.”
Hirano hopes his journey inspires other Japanese players to stop looking at hockey as a “minor sport.”
“If I can make the team, like (in the) AHL, ECHL, National Hockey League, I can show Japanese kids they (can) have dreams (of playing),” he said.
The Penguins roster will be significantly larger by the time the team takes the ice this morning for practice No. 2.
Forwards Tobias Lindberg, Jimmy Hayes and Garrett Wilson; defensemen Chris Summers and Stefan Elliott; and goaltender John Muse all cleared waivers on Monday, meaning they will be able to join Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Pittsburgh assigned 12 additional players to the team on Sunday, including preseason standout Ryan Haggerty and last season’s second-leading scorer, Teddy Blueger.
Those players will make up the latter half of a dual practice, according to Donatelli, and will be on the ice around 1 p.m.
Back on the mic
A voice familiar to Penguins fans will be returning to the broadcast table this year.
Scott Stuccio will join play-by-play announcer Nick Hart and provide color commentary for select games during the season. The team hasn’t made an official announcement regarding which games will feature the Wilkes-Barre native.
Stuccio was the Penguins’ play-by-play voice from 2007 through 2010 and went on to serve in the same role with the Hershey Bears through 2016.
Wheeling announced Monday it has extended its affiliation with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for two seasons.
The team’s partnership with Pittsburgh has been one of hockey’s most successful, as 20 former Nailers have made their NHL debut with Pittsburgh since 1999.
“Wheeling plays an instrumental role helping to develop young talent for our organization in both Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton,” Pittsburgh assistant general manager Bill Guerin said in a news release. “We look forward to continuing our partnership.”
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