Spirit assistant coach Ryan Kuwabara shares memories of playing in the 1998 Winter Olympics
By: Cory Butzin, Digital Content Contributor
In just two short days, the world will come together for its premiere sporting competition when the 2018 Olympic Games begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
And Ryan Kuwabara will look on from afar with fond memories.
The first year Saginaw Spirit assistant coach was once one of those celebrated athletes wearing his nation’s colors and walking through the tunnel for the opening festivities in 1998 when he suited up for the Japanese men’s national ice hockey team in the Nagano winter games.
“You get outside and there’s all these different countries, and you get to mingle there,” he said. “Then they set you up, and you walk out. It’s definitely an energy rush. You’ve got 80,000 people screaming and cheering and waving you on.
“You’re walking through representing your country. It’s a really special time and something I relive every time this time of the year comes around for the Olympics.”
A Hamilton, Ontario native, Kuwabara took a unique path to participating in the Olympic games.
After an Ontario Hockey League career with the Ottawa 67’s in the early 1990’s, which saw the Montreal Canadians select him 39th overall in the second round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Kuwabara played two professional seasons in North America before taking his career to Japan where he suited up for the Kokudo men’s ice hockey club.
“I went over four years before (the Olympics),” Kuwabara said. “You had to live there four years before to acquire citizenship. I had Japanese descent, and I was there for four years. You have to go through a language test, different interviews and meetings. We went through the process in the four years leading up to it.
“So when the time came, I got my official (citizenship) stamp, I think it was January right before the Olympics started.”
Just in time to perform on the world’s largest stage in front of a packed and frenzied home crowd.
“You always dreamt of as a hockey player, the first goal was to play in the NHL,” he said. “But your second goal is, ‘I’d love to represent my country in the Olympics.’ I was lucky enough to have one of those come true. It was a very special time.”
A skilled forward, Kuwabara put up 107 goals and 133 assists in 196 games with the 67’s, and his professional career with Kokudo saw him tally 92 goals and 79 assists. That skill served him well during the games.
Japan drew games against Belarus, France and Germany going 0-2-1 during pool play in ‘98 before tying Austria in crossover competition.
In a 5-2 loss to France, Kuwabara found the back of the net for his first goal of the games, and he tallied a second in a 2-2 tie against Belarus.
“It was hosted by Japan, so it was our home crowd,” he said. “It was electric everytime we were on the ice, every time we touched the puck. I was fortunate enough to get a couple points there, and it’s pretty special to score a goal in the Olympics, let me tell you. It’s a pretty awesome feeling.”
In addition to sharing it with his countrymen, Kuwabara said it was special to share the experience with his wife who was pregnant with their first daughter at the time.
“I always tell (his daughter), you were there honey,” he said.
Kuwabara said he still speaks at his children’s schools every year wearing the clothes he wore for the opening ceremonies back in ‘98 and the rings he and his teammates were presented.
“It’s a special time for any athlete that gets the opportunity to get there,” Kuwabara said. “There are just great memories from being in the village and around those great athletes.”
The opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 9 with men’s ice hockey beginning competition Wednesday, Feb. 14.
Photo: The Asahi Shimbun, Getty Images
Kuwabara battles along the boards with a German player during a Men’s Ice Hockey Group B match in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan