Kojin Nakakita knows Canada quite well.
The native of Kagawa, Japan moved to Chatham, ON at the age of 14 for hockey. He then moved on to Wilcox, SK and the Notre Dame Hounds, before playing NCAA hockey in San Diego. His playing career was cut shot by an injury during his college career.
Nakakita hasn’t been surprised this week with the enthusiasm that Charlottetown, PEI hockey fans have for the 2008 World Sledge Hockey Challenge. Nakakita is head coach of Team Japan, one of four teams at this week’s event at the CARI Complex.
“I’m glad to be here,” says Nakakita. “It took us 30 hours to get here but it’s nice to be in Canada. It’s a great experience for our players to feel this hockey town, Charlottetown.”
Nakakita has been part of Japan’s sledge hockey program since 2003. A business associate of his, who is involved in wheelchair basketball in that country, asked Nakakita to coach Japan’s sledge hockey team. Despite Nakakita’s history in the game of able-bodied hockey, he had never witnessed sledge hockey. He knew nothing about the game back then.
“I didn’t know about it,” he says. “I figured sledge hockey was very slow. The speed got me. I was shocked.”
Since then, Nakakita has seen the sport grow in his country. Still, there have been and are challenges.
One of the main challenges for Nakakita and his staff is educating potential sledge players about the sport of hockey – not just the sport of sledge hockey, which began in Japan shortly before the 1998 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Nagano.
Team Canada is made up of many athletes who grew up watching and/or playing able-bodied hockey. In Japan, though, able-bodied hockey is still not a mainstream sport.
“Eighty per cent of my players have never played the sport before,” Nakakita says. “It’s very difficult for me to get hockey sense into them. Some of them have never played hockey … they haven’t even seen hockey.”
Having said that, sledge hockey has grown leaps and bounds in Japan since 2003. Nakakita says corporate support and media interest are on the rise.
That has increased the number of disabled athletes who know about sledge hockey, which in turn has turned Japan into a force on the world sledge stage. Japan finished fourth at the recent IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship.