From Sapporo with love

Though he didn't make the team, Kazuki Ota's passion for the game has inspired the Tommies. (Chris Morehouse/AQ)

It’s a Monday afternoon practice for the St. Thomas Tommies, and after a two-day break, the dressing room is buzzing when a young man enters the room with a gear bag over his shoulder. He sits down quietly and starts to dress. Players wonder who is he or what he is doing here, but they go over and introduce themselves. He’s Kazuki Ota, a Japanese native chasing the Canadian dream.

It was a power-skating practice. And the team got to witness Ota’s love for the game. With every fall, he picks himself up off the ice and starts again. Never giving up or quitting, he faces every new challenge head on. With little English, the smile on his face throughout the practice is all the communication that’s needed.

The 22 year old from Sapporo is in Fredericton on a student exchange to help him learn English, but if you ask him why he is “really” here, the answer is much different.

“The real reason I came to St. Thomas wasn’t to study or learn culture; the only reason is to play and learn hockey,” Ota says with a smile.

Sapporo is anything but a hockey hot bed and his love for the game only started four years ago after a field trip to a local rink with a friend. It was love at first sight.

“I had never skated before, but I watched the hockey then decided to join the hockey team. I really, really love hockey’s speed, so my goal is to be the fastest skater in the world.” When Ota speaks, his broad smile never goes away, like his hockey hero, Alexander Ovechkin.

As the pace of practice picks up, Ota’s lack of experience starts to show but that doesn’t stop him. Every battle for a puck, every pass, every shot on goal: he gives it everything. The players notice right away.

“It’s obvious he loves the game,” says Randy Cameron, a third-year forward. “It takes real courage and guts to come out here and leave it all on the ice. Watching him really motivates me to be a better player.”

Second-year forward Steven Sanza believes his practice was better because of Ota’s presence on the ice.

“His work ethic and passion is contagious, he never gives up on any puck or on any drill. He makes me not only want to improve as a player but as a person too.”

As practice winds down, Ota gets his chance to shine. The puck’s in front of the net with the goalie out of position; it’s calling his name. Before the goalie can get back, Ota slides the puck just inside the post. What happened next will forever be ingrained in the minds of the players on the ice.

Ota’s arms go up in the air in triumph and before he can put his arms back down, his teammates swarm and smother him as if he’s Paul Henderson in the final game of the Summit Series.

After two practices, it’s clear that Ota isn’t quite ready for university hockey, but he didn’t pack up his gear without leaving a lasting impression in the locker room – an impression head coach Troy Ryan noticed early.

“It’s still just a game,” says Ryan. “Sometimes our players take it for granted. When you see a guy like Ota who just loves to play, it puts things in perspective and rubs off positively on the players.”

So what’s the next chapter in Ota’s hockey story? One thing is certain: it isn’t over. He travelled all this way to learn the Canadian game.

“I am very sad that I won’t be playing, but I will keep training on and off the ice and learning the game and wait for my next chance to play hockey.”

Chris Morehouse is a forward with the St. Thomas Tommies hockey team.

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