Japan is rapidly emerging as a prominent hockey country. The country’s U20 team is clawing their way up the ranks, earning promotion in two of their last three World Juniors. And the impact of Japanese players is being felt globally. Sho Sarusawa just became the first Japanese player to win the championship in Spain’s top league and Yuki Miura and Kohei Sato became only the third-and-fourth Japanese players to play in 100 NCAA games.
Japanese hockey radiates. The country continues to grow in the hockey world, with no signs of slowing down, on the back of some incredible international-talent. At the heart of this rapid growth are the Youngstown Phantoms and their star Japanese-forwards Yusaku Ando and Kenta Isogai.
Thank you to LeadOff Sports Marketing and the Youngstown Phantoms for all of their help with this article. LeadOff Sports Marketing serves as the family advisor for many Japanese players playing in North America.
How Youngstown Phantoms Stars are Shaping Japanese Hockey
Japan’s rapid boom in the hockey world is fairly recent. While great talents like Herb and Mel Wakabayashi were wowing fans as early as 1962, the country’s push towards the NHL has never been as strong as it is now. Yusaku Ando had a tremendous rookie season in the USHL last year and has proven his continued-versatility this year. He has, above all else, shown that he needs to be drafted in the 2021 NHL Draft.
And his draft selection is bound to be historic. Only two (real) Japanese players have ever been drafted. And neither of them were picked in the top-seven rounds, both being taken when the NHL Draft had over-seven rounds. That means that no matter where he goes, Ando will be the highest-drafted Japanese player ever and only the third to even hear his name called.
That’s incredible and there’s no better player to earn the title. Ando is humble, driven, and proud to be catapulting his country to new heights.
The 2022 Challenger
But Ando might not hold the “Highest Drafted Japanese-born Player” title for very long. Kenta Isogai is making a seriously strong case of his own. Isogai scored 12 points in 42 games this year. While that’s not a jaw-dropping number, it was good enough for fifth among all 2022 NHL Draft-eligible skaters in the USHL, outside of the USNTDP. He was fourth in points-per-game.
He has set a very high bar right out the gate. And Isogai’s strong scoring has been matched by some serious reliability. Despite being a rookie, Isogai has already beared an occasional top-line role and special teams minutes. He’s flaunting his ability in every possible way. Yusaku Ando himself emphasized that claim, saying…
“[Isogai] is fast and very skilled. He’s been getting better day-in-and-day-out as he gets used to this level.”
Ando also said that he hasn’t really needed to take the rookie Isogai under his wing.
“He’s easy to play with. He sees the ice very well and always checks around with and without the puck. That’s why it is easy for me to play with, and make passes to, him.”
But there’s plenty of praise to go around. In a small interview, Youngstown Phantoms President Andrew Goldman and General Manager Brad Patterson both echoed the amazing ability that Ando and Isogai flaunt.
“Both [Ando and Isogai] are very deserving to be mentioned as NHL Draft prospects… both are elite! People have definitely taken notice and are paying close attention [to them]… We thought Yusaku and Kenta definitely had the make-up and skill-set to be elite players in any league. We feel very fortunate to have them in our organization.”
Youngstown’s Involvement in Japan
Japan-born players have never frequented the USHL. In fact, only nine Japanese players have ever played in the league, going back to 1990. But the Phantoms have hosted one-third of them, starting with Yushiroh Hirano. Hirano joined the Phantoms in 2015, playing one year with the team. While Hirano had done well in Sweden, and while representing his country internationally, his name wasn’t prominent enough to be drafted into any Junior-leagues. But the Phantoms were lucky to find him. Speaking to how they came across the Japanese-star, Patterson and Goldman said…
“We Brought Yushiroh in after watching a video on him from the Chicago Blackhawks development camp. Once he stepped foot on the ice here in Youngstown, we knew immediately he would be an impactful player.”
They were right. Hirano would go on to score 24 goals and 46 points in 54 games that year. That ranked him second on the team in goals and third in points. The impact that Hirano’s strong year would have would set the groundwork for Japanese players in the USHL. The Phantoms management said that he, “definitely opened our eyes to non-traditional market players.”
Hirano was a ground-breaker in the USHL and the Phantoms have made sure to keep him involved as a result. Goldman said…
“After drafting both [Yusaku Ando and Kenta Isogai], Brad Patterson had Hirano reach out to them to answer any questions. Having that connection and someone that has made the jump before definitely helped.”
Hirano opened the doors to Japanese hockey for the Phantoms. The Phantoms have been contacted ever since Hirano took the ice for them, through a bunch of different outlets. Goldman spoke about one of these, saying…
“Hockey always seems to prove how small the world is. Once we acquired Yushiroh Hirano, Brad was contacted by a friend I met when I was in Japan playing hockey as a youngster, who had spent a few weeks over there when his dad ran a hockey camp.
This friend of his from many, many years ago actually knew Yushiroh and was involved with one of his teams in Japan prior to him coming to Youngstown. Brad is now often contacted by him and his family as they are big hockey fans.”
He continued by talking about how the team may be more-directly involved with hockey in Japan moving forward.
“After having these players in Youngstown, Brad has been contacted about running camps in Japan to identify prospects for the future. This is something he was very interested in and was planning to do prior to Covid.
Hopefully in the future this is something that he will be able to do. We should be very interested in bringing more players over based on our success with Yushiroh, Yusaku, and Kenta.”
The tremendous success of Hirano started a steady-flow but Yusaku and Kenta have opened the floodgates. The duo are not only fighting for an NHL Draft-selection, they’re inspiring generations of Japanese talent. Talent that the Youngstown Phantoms will make sure to keep a close eye on by the sounds of it. And they don’t think they’ll be the only ones, saying…
“We believe that, as a whole, hockey will begin to see more-and-more players playing at an extremely high level from non-traditional hockey markets.”
High-End Futures Themselves
Hirano, Ando, and Isogai are all incredibly proud — humble but proud — to carry their country forward in the hockey world. The impacts they’ve made and the impacts they will make are truly incredible. But their own careers are just as important. And luckily, each of them have an exciting future ahead. Futures that continue to set new precedents for Japanese players.
Hirano didn’t end up getting drafted. But his career stayed in full-force following his year in the USHL. He played two seasons in Japan immediately after but was quickly brought back to Sweden, where he played in the country’s second-tier league. He scored 13 points in 18 games. Combined with a point-per-game performance in the Asia League, Hirano’s play was enough to earn an ECHL contract.
He became only the 12th Japanese player to appear in the ECHL. And in the same year that he made his ECHL debut, he also appeared in one AHL game, recording one assist and one penalty. He remains only the third Japanese player to play in the AHL.
Hirano’s play has been absolutely terrific, with 92 points in 112 ECHL games. At only 25, with his work ethic and ability to thrive, there’s no doubting Hirano’s bright future.
Ando had a great rookie season in the USHL in the 2019-20 year. He scored 25 points in 40 games, ranking him seventh among DY-1 skaters. He, in terms of points-per-game, outscored Jeremy Wilmer, Ryan St. Louis, and many other players that are now considered to be Top 100-worthy come the 2021 NHL Draft.
Ando has now spent his sophomore season taking a break from scoring. He’s instead been a “do-it-all” man for the Youngstown Phantoms. He has served in a variety of roles, showing value as a shooter, defensive-specialist, and even a net-front presence. He’s shown a terrific ability to grow and fit his teams’ needs. And through it all, his scoring has still stood strong. He has 23 points in 46 games. This includes five points in his last five games.
He is now settling back into his role as a speedy, productive winger after months of varying roles. And it’s paying off. Ando has found his spark and is making one final push before the NHL Draft. With so much booming-potential being shown already, there’s a great chance many NHL teams will take a look at him come July.
But perhaps the biggest star of the trio is Isogai. Goldman and Patterson said of Isogai…
“Kenta has been terrific for us this season. Not only has he displayed his tremendous ability at a very young age, he has been a relentless worker and pushes himself to get better on a daily basis. He is definitely a fan-favorite and a very popular player in our locker room.”
Isogai himself has been very happy with his rookie season. He said…
“Everything is different… it’s way harder in America… [but] I love being in North American hockey.”
He continued by saying that his pursuit of the USHL was made in an effort to pursue the best hockey he could. He has his eyes dead-set on making it to the NHL and, after a strong rookie season, he could do just that. Isogai is a speedy winger who reads play brilliantly. He blends well with any teammate, making him a coach’s dream. He’ll look to follow in Ando’s footsteps and perform just as well next year, fighting for a 2022 NHL Draft-day selection.
Isogai ended my interview with him by saying…
“It feels amazing to be apart of a great hockey program. I am thankful for the Phantoms Staff for giving me the chance to be here and play.”
Hockey is on the rise in Japan. And one of the country’s favourite teams remains the Youngstown Phantoms. President Andrew Goldman and General Manager Brad Patterson have remained diligent in their pursuit of non-traditional hockey markets and, in turn, have been rewarded with some incredible talent. The Phantoms’ stars are poised to make history in the coming years, pushing their country even further into the realm of hockey dominance.