On May 5th, 2002, Poland and Japan would face off at the Elite Division of the World Championships. Poland was back in the Elite Division for the first time since 1992. The red and white were led at the tournament by NHL players Krzysztof Oliwa and Mariusz Czerkawski, and national team stalwarts Jacek Płachta, Tomasz Jaworski, Waldemar Klisiak. The national team was in a good place with two NHL players and multiple players around strong leagues in Europe. Poland started the tournament on the wrong foot, losing by a combined score of 18-0 to Finland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. This sent them to the relegation round, where they convincingly beat Italy 5-1. In their next game, Slovenia would beat them 4-2, making the May 5th game vs. Japan do or die, or maybe just die.
Japan had long been competing in the IIHF, often finishing in the high teens for their IIHF rankings. Then in 1998, Japan was awarded the winter Olympics in Nagano. In a mirror image of what we saw recently with China hosting the Olympics, the IIHF had to make the Japanese club more competitive. After winning the Far East Qualifier, Japan started playing in the Elite Division of the World Championships and stayed in the Division. The team relied heavily on players, usually with Japanese heritage, becoming imports for the country, many of whom had been playing in Japan for quite a few years. Homegrown talent like Takahito Suzuki also shined though. Japan would suffer a similar start to the tournament as Poland, losing 9-2 to Germany, 5-2 to Czechia, and then 5-1 to Switzerland. Japan would lose 4-3 to Slovenia to start the relegation round. They would then suffer a rough defeat with Italy at a 6-2 final. This meant the game with Poland would be for pride and to not go winless in the round.
On a side note, that Japanese team also featured Yutaka Fukufuji as the third goalie. Fukufuji was just a couple years away from making history when he would be the second Japanese player ever drafted to the NHL and the first goalie. In 2007, he became the first Japanese player to appear in an NHL game. He would go on to appear at 11 World Championships for Japan. He is still playing and will be backing up Yuta Narisawa versus Poland at the 2022 Worlds.
On May 5th, 2002, the puck drops. Poland would grab the lead during the first period, scoring once. Japan’s defense was standing firm, but eventually, Poland broke through big time in the second period. After two periods, it would be a 4-1 lead for Poland. Both teams would add one more goal in the third for a final score of 5-2. Poland finished second in the relegation group with a 2-1 record. Usually, this would save a team from being relegated, but at the time, an Asian team could not be relegated. Poland was relegated instead as the second-place team in the relegation group. They have not been back to the Elite Division since.
Poland’s Fall From Grace
Polish hockey felt they were better than being relegated. The red and white fought like hell in Division 1 to get back to the Elite. From 2003 to 2008, Poland won either silver or bronze every year in Division 1, just coming up short of promotion. The aging national core saw more and more players end their careers while the next generation could not reach the same heights as their predecessors. In 2012, Division 1 was split into groups, with Poland being put in the second group, B. The path back to the Elite Division now meant winning promotion twice. In 2014, Poland would finally earn a promotion to Group A. Despite being the new team in the group, Poland would take bronze both in 2015 and 2016. In Group A, the top two teams get promoted to the Elite Division. Poland had just come up short of promotion to the elite again.
In a desperate move to try and get back to the Elite after finishing fourth in 2017, Poland would bring on former NHL head coach Ted Nolan. The former coach of the year in the NHL was poised to take the national team to the next level with his experience and expertise. Instead, it was a terrible fit, and Poland was relegated back to Division 1 Group B. Ted Nolan would leave the team after only a single season. Poland would fail to rejoin Group A after finishing second in 2019. After two tournaments were canceled in a row, now in 2022, Poland finally has another chance to gain entry into the Division below the top. The Polish national team is coming off beating Kazakhstan to qualify for the final round of Olympic qualification and then beating highly ranked Belarus 1-0 in a massive upset. This year, Poland came into the World Championships, with promotion being the only option. Staying in Group B is not an option and would likely force massive changes.
Japan gets Surpassed
Japan stayed in the Elite Division until 2004, winning the Far East Qualifier each time. The IIHF would do away with World Championship qualifiers after that tournament. Japan was placed in Division 1. At the time, the IIHF had two separate Division 1 Groups. Japan and Poland would meet in the same group once in 2005 when Poland beat them 2-1. Japan would stay competitive in their group but never achieve promotion. The land of the rising sun took a bronze medal every year from 2006 to 2010. Their streak only ended in 2011 after the team withdrew due to the national disasters that had struck their country.
When the IIHF split Division 1 into a higher and lower group. Japan was placed in the higher group. They fought hard to earn a promotion but, like Poland, came up short. Their best chance was in 2014, placing third and winning bronze. Their most common finish was fourth place, enough to stay in the division, consistently winning multiple games.
It all came crashing down in 2016. Japan would lose all five games and be relegated to Group B. One of the teams they lost to was South Korea, a country preparing for its own winter Olympics in 2018. For years, Japan had dominated South Korea in the Far East Qualifiers. Now South Korea had passed Japan in the race to return to the Elite Division. In 2017 and 2018, Japan finished with two silver medals in Group B and then fell to bronze in 2019. Following two years of COVID cancellations, Japan looks to get back to Group A after three years in the second group. They will need to beat Poland, whom they lost to 7-4 in 2019.
The Prized Prospects
Both Poland and Japan are mainly comprised of players that play in their home country. Neither team sees a lot of players that venture outside the country, let alone to stronger leagues. Japan’s Shuhei Kuji played at Germany’s top level, while Poland had Aron Chmielewski reach Czechia’s biggest stage. Both teams had a player reach the NCAA in Filip Starzyński and Yuki Miura. Both players played for Michigan colleges in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Neither were high-scoring players in college, with only 12 and 29 career points.
Not many more players venture outside their country from either side, especially to leagues of note around Europe and North America. Each side had one prospect who ultimately broke the norms and cleared every hurdle they faced along the route to a career in the North American minor league system.
Alan Łyszczarczyk left Poland at an early age to dominate the Czechia junior leagues. His dominant performance in Czechia led him to the Ontario Hockey League in 2016, where he was equally as good, recording over 200 points during his four-year career. He eventually turned professional for the 2020 season in the ECHL and posted two solid years, mainly with the Fort Wayne Komets. Łyszczarczyk would leave the ECHL in 2021 with a .68 point per game average.
Yushiroh Hirano was a standout in Japan and moved over 4,000 miles away to play for Tingsryds AIF in Sweden. After impressing in both Sweden and on the international stage during the 2015 season, he moved on to North American hockey. Hirano landed with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League (USHL). After a 46-point year in the USHL, he returned to Japan to play professionally for the Tohoku Free Blades in the Asia League. In 2019, Hirano made the lineup of the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL. He has proved to be one of the league’s best producers, recording 121 points in 144 games over the past three ECHL seasons. In 2022, Hirano got an extended look in the American Hockey League, with the Abbotsford Canucks, recording 12 points in 30 games.
The Battle Ends Tomorrow, The War Continues
May 1st, 2022. After two years of COVID cancellations, we are finally back at the World Championships. In Division 1 Group B, two teams are squaring off for gold and promotion to Division 1 Group A. Both teams used to be closer to the top of the hockey world, competing in the Elite Division of the IIHF, and they fell down the hockey ladder down to Division 1 Group B. Both teams appear to be on the rise from the outside and are being led by an undrafted forward who went from North America’s top junior leagues to the ECHL.
Whoever wins today finally gets back to Division 1 Group A. The promised land is the backdoor to returning to the Elite Division. Since 2015, Poland and Japan have been more common opponents, which is likely going to continue. Staying in Group A is hard. Besides Japan and Poland, we have also seen Lithuania, Romania, South Korea, and Ukraine bounce between the two groups. Poland and Japan will likely continue to face off as each tries to reach the Elite Division.