Dusty Imoo is no stranger to wearing red and white and competing internationally. After all, the Surrey, B.C., native tended goal in an Olympic Winter Games and four IIHF World Championships.
But Canadian hockey fans shouldn’t worry if the name doesn’t ring a bell.
Imoo’s experiences on international hockey’s biggest stages didn’t come with Team Canada – the netminder crossed the Pacific Ocean to represent Japan in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That’s not to say he never got a chance to wear the Maple Leaf. Imoo twice played for Canada, first in 1987 as a member of Team Pacific in an under-17 series against the Soviet Union, and again a year later, this time with Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team in a series against the United States in Colorado Springs, Colo.
This weekend the 42-year-old, who works as the goaltending coach for the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, is returning to the Hockey Canada Program of Excellence, serving as an instructor at the annual POE goaltending camp.
He sees it as an opportunity to not only help develop the next generation of Canadian netminders, but to grow as a coach, a role he’s been in for two seasons with the Thunderbirds.
“Just coming back and (working at the camp) would be fun, but it’s a great learning experience, just as much for me as it is for these kids,” Imoo said. “I need to learn more about the coaching end of things. I feel I’m doing a good job, but there’s always so much you can learn.”
A four-year WHLer with New Westminster, Lethbridge and Regina from 1987 to 1991, Imoo had a trio of NHL training camp tryouts in the early 1990s – with Calgary, Hartford and Vancouver – and also spent time in the IHL and ECHL before a 1994 phone call from a Canadian coaching legend altered his career trajectory forever.
“Dave King called me and asked if I’d be interested in playing in the ’98 Olympics,” Imoo said of the 2013 Order of Hockey in Canada honouree, who served as a consultant for the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation leading up to the Nagano Games. “He said I’d have to come over and play in the pro leagues and they would work towards getting my citizenship.”
So in the fall of 1994, Imoo packed up his wife and kids and headed east – the Far East, to be exact – and suited up for the Seibu Lions of the Japan Ice Hockey League (JIHL) while King helped build a team for the Olympics.
“(King) said he was bringing over 10-12 players that had pro experience and a Japanese-Canadian background, so that started it,” Imoo said of Japan’s Olympic plans. “They really did a lot of work, brought in players and coaches and changed that whole league around, and then brought in imports.”
The 1998 men’s Olympic hockey tournament was undoubtedly the most anticipated in history, with the Games marking the debut of NHL players, meaning names like Gretzky, Yzerman, Sakic and Roy would be a part of the world’s largest sporting event.
Unfortunately for Imoo and the Japanese, they wouldn’t get the opportunity to face the game’s biggest names; Japan finished with two losses and a tie in three preliminary round games and failed to advance to the first round, beating Austria 4-3 in a shootout to secure 13th place.
Despite the disappointing finish, Imoo has nothing but fond memories of his Olympic experience.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “At the time it was so intense and so much was happening all at once. I didn’t really take it all in until after when I looked back at it, because there was a lot of pressure, because we were not a top team, and everyone wanted to do well, so it was pretty intense, but it was quite the experience being immersed with all the athletes; not just the hockey players, but all the athletes.”
The end of the Olympics was supposed to mean the end of Imoo’s stay in Japan, but it was just too comfortable a fit, not only for the goaltender, but for his family as well.
“I started with the intent of just playing until the Olympics,” Imoo said. “The whole build-up to the Olympics, you develop a sense of country and sense of unity – although I’m Canadian, I was proud to play for Japan. Plus there was the money, the lifestyle, everything about it; they treated us so well there that once the Olympics were done, I was staying.”
In all, Imoo spent 12 seasons in the JIHL (later changed to Asia League Ice Hockey), playing nine years with Seibu and the final three with the Oji Eagles, winning three league championships.
He also saw action in four IIHF World Championships with Japan, from 1998 to 2001, and was between the pipes for the Japanese during an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Imoo’s retirement following the 2005-06 season meant a return to Canada, giving son Jonah a chance to play Junior A in the B.C. Hockey League, the same league Imoo played in as a teenager in the mid-1980s.
The Imoos had a chance for a father-son Team Canada moment last fall when Jonah was selected to play at the 2012 World Junior A Challenge, helping Canada West to a silver medal and earning Top Goaltender honours.
The elder Imoo kept his fatherly advice pretty simple leading into the event.
“Having been through all of that, all I said was to take advantage of every moment, try to shine and don’t leave anything out there, give 120 per cent, and just be exhausted after every practice and every game,” he said. “I never talked to him during, but he did more than I ever though could be in him … it was pretty neat.”
Despite his son sharing his love for the position, Imoo is, for the most part, hands-off when it comes to Jonah’s career, so much so that he didn’t make the trip east to Yarmouth, N.S., for the World Junior A Challenge.
“I wanted to, but it’s his time,” Imoo said. “Everybody asks me, why didn’t I bring him to Seattle, why am I not his main goalie guy. This is his life. I have my life in hockey and this is his, and I’m just trying to be more of a dad. I coach him, to help him a little bit here and there, but I like to be his dad and his support.”
To Imoo, this week’s goaltending camp brings him full circle; 26 years after he got his start in the Program of Excellence, 15 years after his Olympic experience, he has returned to where it all began, and he couldn’t be more excited.
“Coming back here, it kind of gives me goosebumps. It’s fun.”