In another sign that sports is slowly getting back to normal, the Asia League Ice Hockey returned to international competition over the weekend of September 3-4 for the first time since the global pandemic disrupted play back in 2020.
South Korean team Anyang Halla made a winning return to the league with a pair of wins over the East Hokkaido Cranes in Kushiro, Hokkaido Prefecture.
Coached by former NHLer Jim Paek, Anyang Halla beat the Cranes 8-5 on Saturday, September 3, then followed that up with a 7-1 win the following day.
In an interview with South Korea’s Yonhap News agency, Paek said he was relieved to see the return of international play.
“Last year, there were no games so I missed the opportunity to learn,” Paek said. “Players have to play to develop based on that experience. That way, players can expect quick judgment and creative play. I pride myself on being prepared."
Paek, who was born in Seoul but grew up in Toronto, was the first Korean to play in the NHL. He was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins team that won the Stanley Cup in the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons.
The finals of the 2020 Asia League Ice Hockey competition were canceled due to COVID-19. Anyang Halla and Russian team Sakhalin were named co-champions based on regular season results.
Anyang was unable to play in the Asia League in the 2021-2022 season due to travel restrictions put in place because of the pandemic. In place of Asia League games, the five Japanese teams in the league contested the Japan Cup in Japan, with the Red Eagles Hokkaido winning the 2022 tournament in March.
Sakhalin Absent From ALIH in 2022-23
Sakhalin is not taking part this season. A message on the team’s website says the team has been banned for “political reasons” although there is no mention of that on the official Asia League website.
The Asia League regular season will run through March 5, 2023. The playoffs will take place from March 9-26.
In other games on the opening weekend of the 2022-23 season, the Nikko Icebucks beat the Tohoku Free Blades 2-0 on Saturday and 5-4 on Sunday.
The other two teams in the league, the Red Eagles and the Yokohama Grits, begin play on Saturday, September 10.
New Era in Yokohama
The Grits have hired a new coach. Canadian Jeff Flanagan replaces compatriot Mike Kennedy, who served as the expansion team’s first coach.
Flanagan coached in Canada mostly at the university and minor league level before coming to Japan.
The Asia League Ice Hockey was formed in 2003 due to the declining popularity of the Japan Ice Hockey League and the folding of the Korea Ice Hockey League.
Over the years, teams from Russia and China have taken part. Anyang Halla lead the competition with a total of six titles.
Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.