Naoki Kaneko travels the world playing ice hockey. He’s this week’s guest on Vagabond Journey’s Atypical Travelers series.
Naoki Kaneko travels the world playing ice hockey. Originally from Japan, he has been bouncing around various hockey leagues in the USA and Europe for the past five years. He does what he loves, sees the world, and gets paid for it. Naoki is this week’s guest on Vagabond Journey’s Atypical Travel series.
Could you tell us a little about your hockey playing history? When and where did you start playing? What teams have you played for?
I’m from Japan but I used to live in NY for 5 years when I was a kid. I started to play hockey in NY when I was 6 years old. I played 1 year in NY and went back to Japan. I continue to play hockey in Japan till middle of my university. I rest my university to try to play outside of Japan. I went to Canada for junior leagues. After that I went for a tryout in US. I made it, but I had problem with VISA, so I rest with a semi pro team in WI [Madison Blues]. Next season I flew to France and here I am.
Could you tell us about hockey in Japan, its history, and some of the culture that surrounds it?
Hockey in Japan is still a minor sport. But there is lots of people who play all around Japan. But the other sports, like baseball and soccer are too big in Japan. So still no chance for hockey to be big. There is only one professional league playing with Chinese and Korean teams now. There used to be a only Japanese teams league. Hockey was trying to get big when the Nagano Olympics were held. But lots of companies started not to put money for hockey. And hockey got smaller and smaller.
How do you fund your hockey career? Do you make enough money playing hockey to cover all of your expenses?
While I’m in team, the team pays everything for me. They give me salary, house, equipment, airplane tickets (sometimes I pay by myself for the ticket). When I’m back in Japan (It’s only 3 or 4 months) I stay at my parents house and I work.
When did you realize that you could make a living playing hockey professionally?
I really don’t know about that. Maybe when I make the tryout in US for the first year challenge outside of Japan. Cause I noticed that I had enough speed and technique even though I’m a short guy.
What is it about hockey that made you want to devote your life to it?
I don’t know how to say it. But its everything for me. I believe my life is just to play hockey. I just can’t quit thinking about it and playing it.
How do people in Japan react when you tell them that you play hockey for a profession? Is this reaction different in other countries?
I think almost the same reaction even if it’s a different country. “Great thing that you can earn money doing what you like,” “I wish I could do the same thing,” “Living in the dream,” “Do what you can when you are young.”
Nobody said to me, but some of the people in Japan maybe will think, “It’s not gonna continue for long term, get a stable job and save money for the future.” This thinking comes from the Japanese culture.
What does your family think of your career choice?
Everyone is cheering and supporting me a lot. Especially my parents. I have a younger sister and brother. My sister always says, “I’m envious because you can go to other countries for work doing what you like.” My brother who plays hockey too is trying to be like me.
What is the life of a minor league hockey player really like? What is the day to day routine? What are the best parts? The worst parts?
Because it’s a minor league lots of players have a side job. So if you have one, you work a bit and play hockey. But like me, I can’t speak good enough french and don’t have an EU passport. You don’t have much things to do. Go to the gym and maybe coach the kids. Best part for me is I can just play hockey and train in gym for hockey and get money for that. The worst is you really get bored. There is day that I don’t go out. haha.
Why did you go to France to play hockey?
I have an American friend who is a professional hockey player. He knows lots of people around the world. He had a good contact in France and he thought France would be a good place for me to play, so he introduced me to the team. I flew and make them see me, and got on the team.
When you first arrived in France, what surprised you?
People keep speaking in French even though I don’t understand. They don’t try to speak in English except some of the young people. haha.
What have been the challenges of playing hockey in Europe? How is it different than in Japan?
Wherever I go I’m one of the shortest guy, so I’m always thinking to skate fast and not to get smashed. I train my lower body and core a lot. So far, it’s working good. It’s always a good challenge that I notice what I need to be more better. Big difference [between hockey] in Japan [and Europe] is the physical play. Japanese are small and don’t hit a lot. But they skate very good and more system play.
How has hockey provided you with an opportunity to travel, what other countries and cities have you gotten to experience because of hockey?
It gives me a lot of opportunity to travel. To play for regular seasons, I have just played in US (1year) and France (4years). But I traveled to other countries to join hockey tournaments or for tryouts. I have been to US: NY, WI, TN; Ottawa, Canada; Tampere, Finland; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Belgium; Germany; France: Morzine, Metz, Tours; China: Harbin, Hong Kong.
Do you have any funny/ interesting stories about playing hockey abroad that you would like to share?
I think it’s not a funny story but almost everyone gets surprise that there is hockey in Japan. And they get surprise at how good I can play too. And wherever I go, at the first everyone says, “You are Chinese!!” And after I say that I’m Japanese, “Sushi” comes first. I have a Japanese friend who also plays in France. He skates very fast so the kids call him “Speed Sushi” haha.
What are your future plans?
I want to continue my career util around 30 years old. I don’t care if it’s not the top league but I want to go to other countries to see lots of style of hockey. After that I want to do coaching. I don’t know which country. But I want to make hockey big in Japan. So maybe try to work with it in Japan.
About the Atypical Travel Series
There are many ways to travel the world that go beyond backpacking to tourist sites or teaching English. The Atypical Travel series on Vagabond Journey features individuals who are living lives on the road but typically fall off the radar of what we think of when we say “world traveler.” Read the other stories in this series here.
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