BEYOND THE HIGHLIGHTS
By Sonny Sachdeva | Photography by Toru Hanai
Presented By
BEYOND THE HIGHLIGHTS
By Sonny Sachdeva | Photography by Toru Hanai
Presented By
His stickhandling videos have earned millions of YouTube views. Now, 15-year-old Aito Iguchi has his sights set on a bigger goal — making it to the NHL and inspiring a nation.

On a late-April day in Orland Park, Ill., Aito Iguchi is gaining momentum, flying up the wing with his beige, two-sizes-too-big jersey billowing in his wake. His quick-stepping CCM skates mark up the sheet at an unassuming rink called the Arctic Ice Arena. It’s game time at the 2018 USHL Combine, and Iguchi’s got eyes for the net.

He collects the puck just outside the opposing blue line, receiving a pass with ease and casually flicking it under the twig of the defender attempting to quell his pace. A quick succession of crossovers carries him deeper into enemy territory and he glances left to assess his options. Now just a few feet from the net, not a single one of his teammates has caught up to him. It’s an unfortunate sight given the three black sweaters closing in. This is the hazard of being a blue-chip prospect, this momentary loneliness, but it’s an experience Iguchi has become accustomed to as the premier talent in his hometown of Saitama, Japan.

He uses the milliseconds available to weigh potential outcomes, formulating plans and casting them aside. He looks towards the arena’s far wall, where a collection of mismatched team banners is outdone in its quirky arrangement only by the gigantic poster for local Italian sandwich shop Al’s Beef. A beige sweater briefly obscures the image of Al’s finest cuts as a teammate finally scrambles into the zone. Now, with so little space between Iguchi and the defensive trio that his options seem to evaporate, the part of his brain that concocts dazzling, highlight-reel displays kicks into action. He glides, spins and, twirling like a whirling dervish, fakes a toe drag before floating the puck effortlessly back to his trailing mate. A moment later, it’s returned to his stick, and soon after that it’s resting amid the twine.

Iguchi is plenty of things, all at once. He is a viral-video sensation. He is arguably Japan’s best hope yet at producing a bona fide NHL star. And, most importantly, he is one of hockey’s most intriguing, if misunderstood, prospects. The 15-year-old face of a group of phenoms from a small club team in Saitama, trained by a famed Soviet defenceman and on a mission to forever change the perception of Japanese hockey. After lighting up the internet with stunningly skillful combinations from the age of 11, Iguchi now faces a career-defining, life-altering decision: whether to remain an overseas mystery or dive headfirst into the grind that is the North American development ranks.

MAKING A NAME
Iguchi's first trick video with Barber has been viewed 2.8 million times and counting.

The first time Aito Iguchi picked up a hockey stick, he was just trying to be like his dad. At four years old he’d spent much of his young life watching Kazuhito Iguchi tear it up on both the inline and ice hockey rinks in Saitama — a city just north of Tokyo. Kazuhito, a civil engineer, began playing in high school, fell in love with the sport and stuck with it into his 30s. He passed that love on to his son, but wanted the game to come easier to Aito, he says, with the help of translator Tracy Seeley. He wanted Aito to have awe-inspiring skill wired into his hands and feet, so he began laying out intricate stickhandling and skating drills in the family’s back driveway right from the beginning, setting up any pattern of obstacles he could think of for his son to swerve and twirl around. When Aito was five and first took the ice, as a member of the Saitama Junior Warriors, he was already a mini highlight reel.

Even for five-year-olds, hockey practice in Saitama wasn’t for the faint of heart: sessions every Saturday and Sunday, 12 months a year, consisting of an hour-long off-ice workout followed by a two-hour on-ice session. “It was almost like being in an army camp, you know. It was just drills, drills, drills, drills, drills,” says Seeley, who runs the English school Aito attends in Saitama and whose son, Naoki Yamanaka, started out on the Junior Warriors with Aito. “And then, at the very end, they would have a little scrimmage, after two hours of drills.”

“He was just always playing around with the puck. That’s pretty much my only memory of him.”

Aito loved every second. He’d run through the practices with a smile and squeeze in a few more hours of stickhandling in that asphalt lane whenever he could. “He was just always playing around with the puck. That’s pretty much my only memory of him,” Seeley says. “He just could never get enough.”

Toronto, Ont., native Gord Graham guided Aito in those early days, and for a decade after, as one of the Junior Warriors’ coaches. That his team’s routine resembled an army camp’s, even for the younger skaters, checks out given the architect of the club’s development strategy. “We got a lot of direction from Vasili Pervukhin, who played on the great Soviet national teams of the 1980s and ’70s — the Canada Cup, Olympic gold medalist, he was with all those top teams,” Graham says.

Playing on the Japanese pro circuit after his time in the Russian spotlight ended — seven gold medals to his name between his Olympic and World Championship appearances — Pervukhin was convinced to help iron out a coaching program for the Junior Warriors after befriending the club’s founder, Hideaki Sato. As a result, says Graham, “a lot of our development program is based on the Russian development program, which is a lot of agility work, a lot of edgework … By the time they’re six, seven, eight years old, they’re going into tires backwards, crossing over while carrying the puck with their heads up — fluidly.”

This intensive training was just a bonus for Iguchi, Graham says. He was already highly skilled when he waddled into his first practice, which made for some awkward moments, since youth hockey teams in Japan aren’t generally divvied up by skill level. With the sport holding a very small place in the country’s collective consciousness — only 167 rinks dot Japan, whose population exceeds 126 million, as opposed to roughly 8,300 in Canada — any players intent on participating are corralled in one program. The result? Some absurdly one-sided affairs, always in favour of Aito and the few teammates who could play at his level. “In Japan they don’t know the ‘you don’t run the score’ unwritten rule,” says Graham. “So they would be winning games 30–0 … They would be bored just to score a regular goal. Every goal was a highlight-reel goal. They wouldn’t just pass to each other once or twice. They’d be passing to each other three, four, five times. And doing the behind-the-leg toe drag up to their own skate, kicking it up — this is at six years old. All these skill things you see now, he was doing that then.”

“They’d be doing the behind-the-leg toe drag up to their own skate, kicking it up — this is at six years old.”

It was the potency of that skill and the lack of eyeballs taking it in that spurred Graham to start up the Japan Samurai in 2012, a travelling tournament team comprised of players from the Junior Warriors and others from a camp he runs each summer in Hokkaido. The goal was to get his players some exposure in North America and to allow his young skaters to get their feet wet in the North American game, even if that meant a couple beatdowns by teams built in the fires of Canada’s hockey obsession.

But a funny thing happened: Each time they came up against these tougher tests, the Samurai held their ground. They took time to adjust, but eventually proved they could hang with their North American counterparts, and perhaps do even more. One tournament in particular, the Pat Quinn Classic in Burnaby, B.C., saw Iguchi win the scoring title with 23 points in six games. “Those were kids that were a lot bigger, stronger. But his speed was elite, and he dominated there just as he did in Japan,” Graham says. “You just see him turn up a notch — when he plays higher-level competition, he plays at a higher level. It’s like the old ‘water seeks its own level’ kind of thing.”

THE UNNATURAL
Having run drills with his dad from the moment he picked up a stick, Iguchi was already a highlight-reel player at six years old.

In 2013, Iguchi’s father stumbled across a collection of online videos from Vancouver-based stickhandling specialist Brandon “Pavel” Barber. Hoping to convince the part-time YouTube star, part-time skills coach to mentor his young prodigy, he sent Barber a couple clips of Aito flying around the rink with the Junior Warriors. “I was just floored with how skilled the kid was,” Barber says now, gushing about how fluid Iguchi’s handles were, how he skated with an economy of motion uncommon for someone his age. It was clear that Aito understood the inner workings of the game, that he could see the patterns before they played out on the ice. The 7,537 kilometres separating Vancouver and Saitama limited the ways Barber and the Iguchis could interact, but they continued trading videos, with Barber breaking down clips of Iguchi’s shifts and sending back tips.

In 2014, Aito travelled to Canada for an extended stay, moving in with Barber for a month-long training excursion. The pair communicated mostly through a translation app on the coach’s phone, until a friend of Barber’s, fluent in Japanese, helped bridge the gap. But while Aito might’ve been boxed in by unfamiliarity off the ice, he came alive when he stepped into the rink. He eagerly ran through two-a-day sessions with Barber, whose goal was to harness his raw skill into something a little more deceptive. “We looked at his stickhandling a lot, of course, and his body language to kind of assess whether what he’s doing is too predictable or inefficient,” Barber recalls. “I wanted to take that skill and force him to think a little bit quicker than he’s comfortable with and react to cues that he’s not necessarily comfortable with as well.”

Once in a while, Barber would bring Aito out to his regular clinics and throw him in with his usual group of students, language barrier be damned. “He still performed the little details we were trying to get at better than most of the other kids,” Barber says. “You won’t really find Aito going through the motions very much when he’s training. Every repetition he does, you can really tell he’s doing it with a purpose and he’s really trying to get something out of it.”

In September of 2016, Barber posted a video compilation of the wunderkind for his six-figure YouTube audience. Clad in Junior Warriors threads and flanked by Barber in his own Detroit Red Wings-esque Pavel Barber Hockey School sweater, Aito put on a spellbinding display. He whipped pucks from side to side, deftly navigating through pylons, pipes, a smattering of pucks dumped from a bucket at centre ice, and any other obstacles Barber could throw his way. He was unfazed by the frenzy — an awe-inspiring performance for an 11-year-old whose training came mostly on rollerblades in Saitama parking lots.

Lovers of the good old Canadian game flocked to the video. It has to date amassed more than 2.8 million views and earned mentions on national networks across the continent. All that attention created a flood of interest in this mysterious prospect’s origins and, though it was never the goal, forever altered the measure of Aito’s potential. For better or worse, that one display of skill as an 11-year-old pinned a question to the No. 34 on his back: Can Japan produce a genuine NHL star?

Japan doesn’t have a rich history on hockey’s biggest stages. Kushiro’s Hiroyuki Miura was taken 260th overall by Montreal in 1992, but Yutaka Fukufuji is the only Japanese player ever to appear in an NHL game. Fukufuji took the ice in a Los Angeles Kings sweater four times in early 2007 before being relegated to the minors.

While the lack of attention paid to the country’s prospect pool remains a key obstacle, so too does Japan’s own waning interest in the sport following the spike generated by the women’s national team earning a spot in the 2014 Olympic tournament. “It’s not out in the front. It’s something that’s very much in the background in the sports world here in Japan,” says Tadahiro Murai, through a translator. Murai played 11 years professionally for Japan’s Nikko Icebucks and went on to coach both that club and the men’s national team. “A lot of people here don’t even know about hockey.”

“I want to be the first Japanese NHL player. I would like to do that for my country.”

Iguchi hopes to reverse that trend. For him, the endgame is simple, summarized by a single sentence: “I want to play for the NHL,” he says through Seeley. “You want to know why I have this dream? I want to be the first Japanese NHL player. I would like to do that for my country.”

Now 15 years old, Iguchi spent the past year suiting up for both his junior high school squad and the Junior Warriors, but neither team was truly equipped to develop him. “I’ve seen quite a few kids, really outstanding kids here, but they just never get seen over here. Which is the reason why I first started taking the kids over [to Canada],” says Graham. “I was just blown away, growing up in Toronto and knowing the level of hockey, seeing that these kids are just as good as the top AAA kids over there … but not having the competition here. I just thought, ‘This is a waste.’”

BIG FISH
Graham first started taking Iguchi and the Warriors overseas to expose them to better competition. Keeping them in Japan, he says, would be "a waste."

A wave of other Junior Warriors have already made the jump to North America. Iguchi’s former teammate Ikki Kogawa played minor midget with the GTHL’s Young Nationals this season and went to Mississauga in the OHL draft. Cale Strasky now plays with the Burnaby Winter Club. Noah Cameron is on the roster for the Pursuit of Excellence academy in Kelowna with Yusaku Ando, who won a tournament scoring title alongside Aito with the Samurai. And another former teammate, Yu Sato, is tearing up the Finnish junior league with eyes on joining the QMJHL next season.

For Aito, who’s long seemed the most promising of the bunch, the point of no return is approaching — either he makes the jump to truly make a go of it in North America or he continues on his current path in Saitama. After taking part in Phase I of the 2018 USHL Combine, Aito says the American development league is his hopeful landing spot next season, with the 2021 NHL Draft the downstream goal. Options in Canada alongside his fellow Junior Warriors alums could be a possibility, too.

“He wouldn’t back down from anybody. He would be first in the corner. He would initiate contact. He was not scared at all.”

If he does take the plunge on a permanent move, it wouldn’t be Iguchi’s first time suiting up for a North American club. He’s dipped a toe during three spring hockey stints, touching down in B.C. and immersing himself in the Canadian approach to the game with the Langley Rivermen, a spring squad intended to develop players for the junior-A team of the same name. Head coach Burt Henderson, who’s half-Japanese himself and played professionally in Japan for eight years, first extended the invite after catching a glimpse of Aito’s YouTube breakout. Iguchi happily accepted and moved in with the Henderson family in April 2015 — with the coach’s mother helping to ease the language barrier this time around.

Langley was an entirely new puzzle for Aito. While his work with Barber felt like moving his drills from that asphalt lane to a rink halfway across the world, this adventure brought a new team, new opponents and a new brand of hockey. Year 1 in Langley was an education in the idea of playing within a cohesive system — an adjustment for a player long used to end-to-end rushes against questionable defenders.

Year 2 allowed Aito to properly acclimate to his new surroundings — he moved in with the family of linemate Adam Grenier, the pair quickly developing a bond that allowed Iguchi to truly come out of his shell both on and off the ice, according to Adam’s father Shawn — but it also brought the patented North American physicality. That seemed a bigger hurdle to clear, Henderson thought, but Aito — all five-foot-two of him — didn’t give an inch. “He wouldn’t back down from anybody. He would be first in the corner. He would initiate contact. He was not scared at all,” Henderson says. “And I know the other coaches would tell [their players] ‘You’ve gotta be physical with this guy.’ But he didn’t care. It didn’t matter to him. He would still do his thing. He’d get the puck, you know, go end-to-end on a rush. Somebody would take a run at him the next time, and it didn’t affect him at all.”

GAME-TIME DECISION
Moving to North America is a big, daunting step, but Iguchi has proven himself ready to compete with the world's top prospects.

So, can an undersized prospect from Japan, with limited experience in the North American game, actually crack an NHL lineup one day? Rob Pulford seems as capable as anyone of assessing Iguchi’s chances. The longtime NHL scout, and son of Hall of Famer Bob Pulford, unearthed his fair share of game changers during his time with the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes, including Johnny Gaudreau and Clayton Keller. After reviewing a ton of film of Aito on the web, Pulford says he’s convinced Saitama’s favourite son is the real deal.

“He’s a talented little player, there’s no doubt about that,” Pulford says. “Obviously, his stickhandling is outstanding, his ability to control the puck — he’s got soft hands, a quick stick, he can really dazzle you with his puck skills. As a skater, really good quickness and agility, great edgework.”

“I understand that it’s very risky. But if you don’t take a risk in life, you’ll never gain anything.”

But most impressive to the veteran eye was Aito’s ability to adapt in the face of stiffer competition. “He was a one-on-one player [in Japan]; he was using his agility and his puck skills to dance around people and score himself. When he wasn’t able to do that at the USHL combine, you saw some playmaking. … he just didn’t fold up — he kept on finding a way to contribute. And that was against bigger, stronger [players], probably the highest competition he’s played against in his life.” Pulford reached out to his contacts at the USHL to gauge their reception of Aito’s performance amid the combine crop. The consensus is he stood out from the pack.

But Iguchi’s obviously still a work in progress, Pulford says, pointing to his speed as a potential area for growth. “You see most of the guys that have success at the NHL level, those little guys can just flat out fly. From what I saw of him, he has that just-fast-enough speed, kind of like a Zach Parise did — he just needs to go fast enough to get away from people.”

While the common criticism levelled at Iguchi from Canadian fans is more along the lines of how he’ll fare against the big-bodied defenders roaming around these parts, Pulford doesn’t see an issue there. “The way the game is going now, he’s not going to be a guy that’s going to take contact that much, because he does look like he has that sixth sense to feel pressure and spin off of it, not put himself in positions. And the game just isn’t the way it used to be — there’s still some physicality but not anything like it used to be.”

A few more hours in the weight room focusing on lower-body strength should help Iguchi develop that pull-away speed, Pulford says. But for the other still-raw aspects of his game, the only cure is consistent reps against better competition — something only a move out of Saitama will provide. “You know, the really good kids around the world, your top kids, are always playing against higher-level and older kids. I remember watching Crosby playing against kids that were three, four years older than him, and being a very noticeable player. Pat Kane was always playing up — you see these kids that are, just because they’re so good against their age group, they get moved up against harder competition.”

BLAZING A TRAIL
Iguchi and others hope that he can be successful enough to inspire future generations of Japanese kids to pick up hockey.

Pulford sees enough in Aito’s game to say he could find success in the NHL one day, though it’s hardly a given considering how far he is from his draft year. But if it does all roll along as planned and Iguchi adds the necessary speed, Pulford sees a comparable in Blue Jackets leading goal-scorer, Cam Atkinson. “A smaller guy in stature with great skating ability, competitive, stick-and-puck skills, decent head, is someone like Cam, who’s had some success in the NHL,” Pulford says.

With Iguchi set to begin high school, he must decide this summer whether he’s ready to leave and focus on hockey. It’s a difficult choice, but at this point, also an inevitable one. “It’s not 100-per cent guaranteed that he will be successful if he decides to quit school [in Japan], play overseas,” Kazuhito says. “I understand that it’s very risky. But if you don’t take a risk in life, you’ll never gain anything. So this is the best thing for Aito.”

The impact of eventually seeing an NHL jersey with “Iguchi” stitched on the back would be immeasurable. “If he were successful, this would put not just him on the map, but the country of Japan on the map in the world of hockey,” Kazuhito says. “Other Japanese children can look at him and perhaps have the same dream someday.”

“Other Japanese children can look at him and perhaps have the same dream someday.”

It’s not simply about Aito blazing a trail to a brighter future, though, but also about shining a spotlight on a pool of talent overlooked in the here and now. “I want people to know that there are other good players in Japan … I want him to have a connection to them, so they can challenge to the world,” Kazuhito says. “I’m hoping that not just Aito becomes famous, but that Aito becomes the avenue for other Asian players that are as good as him, if not better.”

Henderson agrees: “If he could go all the way — which I believe he could — and one day play in the NHL, I think more and more players would come over at an earlier age and develop over here, which I think is key.”

For Murai, who’s toiled in the Japanese professional hockey circuit for more than two decades, Iguchi is Japanese hockey’s lifeline. Not simply because of his skill, but because of the entirety of his situation — the viral fame, the burgeoning success and the potential to reach higher than any countryman before him.

The bubble Iguchi developed in was an oddity, the by-product of a timely union between ex-pats from hockey’s royal states. But in the rest of Japan, the development system remains nonexistent, says Murai. A genuine international star could change that. “If Aito Iguchi made it to the NHL, yes it could make ice hockey more popular here in Japan — he could become a hero. But even more than that, if he had the experience of being in that business over there, in North America, and came back to Japan, he would be able to influence the world of hockey here in Japan in terms of not just play, but the system itself,” says Murai. “He would be able to bring back his experience, everything that he learned, bring it back to Japan.

“It might take Aito being the pioneer to do this, and hopefully that would create a following for other young people who want to follow in his footsteps.”



Photo illustration and design by Sasha Barkans
Edited by Evan Rosser