WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Chasing a dream is equal parts motivation, relentless work ethic, a positive attitude and a humbled willingness to approach uncomfortable situations headfirst. It’s an onerous recipe, a labor of love and an end-product of passion.
More than most are unwilling for the undertaking. Utah Grizzlies forward Yuri Terao, however, is giving it his dream a fair chance.
A world away from his home in Nikko, Japan, lives Terao in suburban Utah, some 5,400 miles away from his family, friends and familiarity. A relationship with Colorado Eagles head coach Greg Cronin and Terao’s agent afforded Yuri the opportunity to come over stateside and give his dream of playing professional hockey a shot.
“It was an opportunity really to step outside the box a little bit,” said Eagles general manager Criag Billington. “...I think in our game, there’s certainly the traditional channels, but there are also some where you got to step outside and see the value in the person and player and invest in that development time.”
After signing a Professional Tryout Agreement (PTO) with the Eagles, Yuri spent some time grinding away at training camp in Loveland for his chance. After he was released from his PTO, he was sent to the Eagles’ ECHL affiliate over in Utah, where he’s currently living out his dream of playing professional hockey.
“He’s a guy that’s certainly motivated,” added Billington. “He came into camp here and continued to impress with his attitude and commitment and willingness to go to Utah and work at his craft.”
The odds are — and always have been — stacked against Yuri. There really just hasn’t been a path paved for hockey players of Japanese descent. In fact, only one Japanese-born player has made it all the way to the National Hockey League. Yukata Fukufuji was a goaltender who was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the eighth round of the 2004 draft. The Tokyo native played four games for the Kings during the 2006-07 season and played out the rest of his career in the ECHL until he retired following the 2009 campaign.
And today, the list of Japanese-born hockey players playing professionally in North American includes just two: Terao, and a friend of his, Yushiroh Hirano, who plays for the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers.
The simple fact of the matter is, hockey is just not a big part of the culture over in Terao’s home country. Over the span of the last 10 years, the number of registered ice hockey players in Japan peaked at the turn of the decade in 2010 with a little over 20,000 players. During the 2018-19 year, those numbers are down to 18,800.
It’s a game that doesn’t get a lot of promotion in Japan, and if it weren’t for his family, Yuri likely never would’ve picked up a hockey stick.
“My family played, my dad and my older brother,” Terao said of his upbringing in hockey. “I don’t remember (when I started playing), I was really young.”
Yuri’s older brother, Hiromichi Terao, is still playing hockey. He skates for his hometown Nikko Icebucks of the Asia League, where he’s amassed over 150 points in nearly 300 games.
I asked Yuri how the North American competition compares to that of Japan. He says the biggest difference is how physical the game is stateside.
“There are very few Japanese players playing overseas, little to no people...In Japan, highly skilled players are highly evaluated. I’m here and the physical side is very good,” he says.
If you watch Terao on the ice in Utah, he certainly doesn’t shy away from the physical side of the game, despite being the smallest guy on the Grizzlies roster at 5-foot-8, 180 pounds. It’s a testament to his passion for the game and his lion-hearted efforts.
“He’s an unbelievable person — an unbelievable person — an unbelievable culture as we’re learning. His skill level is extremely high,” said Utah head coach Tim Branham.
“He’s got a lot of skill,” agrees Grizzlies forward and Colorado Avalanche prospect Brandon Saigeon. “I think he shows it every night. You see a play, whether it’s one-on-one or just making a play in a corner, you think he has no room and he just makes a play and comes out of it with a guy on his back. He’s really shifty and I think he’s a good player.”
Terao has become a fan-favorite among his teammates and Grizzlies supporters. Despite his minimal understanding of this new culture and its language, Yuri says he’s very happy in Utah and in America in general. He says the hockey — and just the sheer amount of it as compared to what was in Japan — is what makes the U.S. so “great.” In America, he has the opportunity to chase his dream.
“I’m very happy...It’s a lot of fun, the city is beautiful, the people are very good, good people,” he says. “I live hockey. Because there are very few Japanese players playing abroad — very little — that is the greatness of the United States.”
Yuri speaks very little English, and with Terao’s translator not around, I was left to my own devices. I wanted Terao to feel comfortable during the interview, and knowing he had a very loose grip on the English language, I told him to just speak in his native tongue and I’d figure out the rest.
I took the audio, had it transcribed over the internet into Kanji, the system of logographic Japanese characters, and left Google Translate to do the rest of the work.
Terao, however, doesn’t have that kind of luxury of just recording what his teammates or coaches say and then translating it later. Communication must be done in the moment in the game of hockey, whether it’s on the ice or on the bench. It’s another obstacle that Terao is asked to overcome on a daily basis.
“It’s difficult to communicate,” admits Terao. “But just because you can’t communicate, don’t become nervous. Because there are various ways to communicate.”
For Terao, his lack of English has done very little, if anything at all, to hinder his learning of the North American game.
“I think we found that he actually understood sometimes better than others, believe it or not,” added Billington. “He was perceptive and a lot of stuff in learning can be visual. Sure, there’s the obvious one of communication through verbal skills, but in coaching there’s a lot of showing, illustrating, whether it’s through video or dry erase boards. I think his perception and his intelligence to pick up stuff didn’t hinder that at all.”
Coach Branham says the team’s adopted an interesting practice to help Terao get more comfortable while also allowing him to practice his English.
“We’ll have him tell jokes to the team and whatnot to get him more comfortable speaking English and he’s doing good,” said Branham.
He adds, as a coach, it’s an obvious obstacle to try to get Yuri to understand things.
“It’s different, right, because it’s limited english…It is a challenge,” said Branham. “Like when I’m explaining things on the board, I slow it down, maybe pull him aside. The boys, the players, his teammates are doing a really good job of helping him learn English and telling him about the drills as they’re going to the line. It’s different, sometimes we have to remember he doesn’t really understand me. But he’s pretty good, he’s pretty good at understanding.”
Like Yuri said, he “lives hockey.” He may not fully understand what his teammates or coaches are really saying but that hasn’t stopped him. He practices everyday — physically, on the ice, and mentally off of it.
“I practice still images every day and then play games on the weekends. Always think about hockey,” he says.
Not only does he think about hockey everyday. He writes about it almost everyday too. Terao started a blog to stay connected with his family and friends back home and to share his experiences in America.
“I want to tell the people who support me that I’m living like this,” he says.
While he’s enjoying his time in Utah, he still eyes a chance at the Colorado Eagles. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll see him pave his own path to the NHL.
“I’m very happy I’m able to play with very skilled people,” Terao says. “I’m playing in Utah, but someday I’m looking forward to being able to play (for) Colorado Eagles and (continue) growth for myself.”