TOMAKOMAI, Hokkaido--The fledgling Asia League Ice Hockey, which grew to include two teams from China and one from Russia in the summer, has elbowed, tripped and hip checked its way to the midway point of its second season.
The league's eight teams have produced plenty to chew on already, and despite a few rough patches, the positives bode well for an entertaining second half and continued success in the years to come.
Here now is a brief report card on the first-half performances of all eight teams.
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Kokudo Lions :The off-ice turmoil surrounding the teams parent company has yet to trickle down to the Lions, who sit alone atop the AL with only two blemishes in the loss column. Kokudo is depth personified: Any club with a forward like Chris Bright-the Japan Ice Hockey League's fifth all-time leading scorer-as a third-string center has got to be oozing with talent. Its no wonder four of the top six scorers so far this season wear Kokudo uniforms.
Grade: A (They can still get better.)
Head of the class: Chris Yule. He missed the first eight games with a broken foot, but returned better than ever. Still the fastest guy on the ice at 29 years old, and with 22 points in 12 games, a force to be reckoned with.
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Nippon Paper Cranes: The team recently locked horns with Kokudo in Tokyo and drew both games. They trail the Lions by five points but have a game in hand, and as the AL's defending champs, the Cranes have a decent shot at a repeat. However, it will take more than ties with Kokudo to retain the title. Look for the Cranes to go for the jugular more in the second half. If they dont, the title is Kokudo's.
Head of the class: Darcy Mitani. With a league-leading 33 points, the 31-year-old veteran has a great shot at winning his first scoring title since the 2001-02 JIHL season.
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Golden Amur: Much of the buzz before the season dealt with what the Russians would bring to the table. Any thought of Soviet-era flash and skill dominating the league was quickly put to rest during the team's first two games in Tokyo. Golden Amur was, in a word, boring. They do possess the talent that was clearly on display in October when they treated Qiqihar to a lesson in pinpoint passing and precision shooting, outscoring the Chinese 38-3 in their three-game series, but it often seems as though the Russians lack the spirit to take a game by the throat.
Head of the class: Muscovite Denis Polunin-young, quick, gifted. Hint to coach: Polunin's only fault is that he doesnt log enough ice time.
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Anyang Halla Winia: What a difference a year makes. Halla progressed heaps last year, going on to beat every team at least once after an abysmal start, but who would have guessed they'd be in fourth place at the halfway point of the season? Probably Essa Tikkanen, the chirpy Finn who boldly predicted he and his linemates would finish 1-2-3 in scoring this year. He's currently tied for 28th.
Grade: A (They've exceeded all expectations so far.)
Head of the class: Sung Bae Kim. The South Korean goaltender has faced more rubber (526) shots than any other goalie in the league, yet still boasts an impressive 2.77 goals against average.
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Oji Paper Eagles: The underachievers of the AL. With names like Yahata, Ishioka, Henderson, Hanson and Keller in the lineup, these guys should be battling it out for third with Golden Amur rather than scrapping for the fourth and final playoff spot with Halla. If goalie Dusty Imoo makes good on his pledge to pick his teammates up by their skate straps in the second half of the season, the Eagles should overtake Halla and cause some headaches in the playoffs.
Head of the class: Burt Henderson. The Canadian defenseman leads the team in scoring, is a plus 17, and when an offensive rush begins in the Oji end of the arena, Henderson is usually a part of it.
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Nikko Icebucks: Long the cellar dwellers of the JIHL, the Bucks no longer hold the distinction of being the worst team in the league. But just because the two Chinese teams have helped Nikko stay off the bottom of the AL pile doesnt mean they have improved any. They play with heart, the play with grit, but they're still 18 points and a giant leap behind Oji and the rest of the leagues top teams.
Head of the class: Keisuke Matsuda. The rugged defenseman is a minus 1, which is a stunning achievement on a team collectively minus 21. Matsuda leads the Bucks in scoring and isnt averse to playing physical or taking penalties.
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Harbin: A team with promise. Harbin is not getting blown out of every game, and if they can tighten up some major holes in their defense, they could pick up a few more Ws next season. Another way to do that would be to dump the three Czechs they imported this season.
What Harbin needs is some foreign motivators, not a trio of despondent whiners.
Head of the class: Pan Yuqiang. A late addition to the team, the 32-year-old forward has tremendous vision, it's a pity the rest of Pan's teammates arent quite on his wavelength yet.
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Qiqihar: Youve got to feel for starting goalie Zeng Guang. The teams goal differential is an embarrassing minus 123, but Zeng's done an exceptional job, including stopping countless breakaways involving more than one opposing player. The former Edmonton Junior A keeper has every right to want to bludgeon his defensemen most nights.
Grade: F (They are an embarrassment to the league)
Head of the class: Zeng, of course. One shudders to think what the team would be like without him.(IHT/Asahi: November 26,2004)