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Saturday, August 2, 2014

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Eizenman takes hockey skills to Japan and Korea

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Oren Eizenman

There are some aspects of hockey that don’t necessarily translate well into other languages.

For instance, how do you say “faceoff” in Japanese?

Or “switch sides” in Korean? How about, “fore check?”

And then there are the more nuanced aspects of the gentleman’s game that crop up now and then, such as “face wash” and, “you wanna go?”

Despite spending the last year playing for the Nippon Paper Cranes in the Asia League Ice Hockey – that’s how it’s described on its web site – Oren Eizenman admits he hasn’t picked up all the subtler hockey expressions in the Japanese language. He understood some of his coach’s instructions, like when he was asked to switch sides when he played the point on a power play. But for the other stuff he had to rely on the team interpreter, who attended practices and even has a place behind the bench during games.

“It’s a very interesting dynamic,” Eizenman said.

Having an interpreter at the bench is one of the nice perks provided by the Paper Cranes, making his hockey experience in the Asia league that much more enjoyable.

Truth be told, games in Asia are less gritty and abrasive than the ones played in North America. The ice surfaces are larger, making for games that stress skating, passing and skill, not in-your-face intimidation. “It’s a very fast game with less contact” than the North American variety, he said.

And that suits Eizenman just fine. A natural centre, he has staked out a career on style and finesse, though playing in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL), he wasn’t afraid to dig for the puck in the corners.

In the season just concluded with the Nippon Paper Cranes – they take their name from their corporate sponsors – he scored 13 goals and added 25 assists for 38 points in an injury-hampered season.

The year before with High 1 in Seoul, South Korea, he scored 63 points in 36 games. The seven-city league has teams in Japan, South Korea and China.

Before his Asia adventure, Eizenman, 28, enjoyed a lengthy career in the ECHL and the AHL. Name a place and he’s been there. He’s played for Connecticut Whale, Syracuse Crunch, Milwaukee Admirals, San Antonio Rampage and the Manitoba Moose in the AHL. His longest stint was 33 games with the Whale in 2010-11. But, as he reminds, it was only one phone call away from a call-up to the Whale’s NHL affiliate, the New York Rangers.

In the ECHL, he spent most of his time with the Fresno Falcons and the Stockton Thunder. Career wise, in 148 ECHL games, he scored 58 goals and added 104 assists for 162 points. In 82 AHL games, he scored six goals and added nine assists.

A dual Canadian and Israeli citizen, he’s also represented Israel at IIHF tournaments, usually playing on the top line. For more about this year’s event in Izmit, Turkey, see our sports page.

Playing in Seoul and Kushiro, Japan, has been a blast, he said. “It’s been a great experience to go and live in those places for a couple of years.”

There are only two North American skaters permitted on each team, so for Eizenman to make the cut is a testament to his ability. “It’s a difficult league to get into. It’s a really coveted job in the hockey world,” he said.

The upside for those who make it is that the pay is even better than in European pro leagues. There, North Americans can earn high five figure or six figure salaries, tax free, along with free accommodation and use of a car, plus other benefits.

So how did he end up in the Far East?

“Originally, I did go because when I left North America, I was looking anywhere and the financial offer came from a team in Seoul. I thought it would be interesting to live in Asia.

“At first, I went in blind, but I had heard good things.”

Eizenman was pleased with the hockey experience. Everything there is top quality, he said.

A drawback in both countries, he continued, is that “not everybody speaks English. I tried to learn the language but it is very different.”

Making the situation even more intriguing is that the Cranes’ head coach named him assistant captain, even though he could barely speak Japanese.

“They saw that I’m a lead-by-example kind of player,” he said. And he served as an antidote to a malaise that sometime plagued the team. “The team had a tendency to get down if things were not going so well and get into a downward spiral… If the team saw that Oren was not worried, so they didn’t worry either.”

At the cultural level, Eizenman admits the adjustment was at times difficult, but “I learned a lot about their cultures. I learned a lot about myself and grew from the experience.”

One of the big differences in Japan was a pervasive deference to authority. The coach’s word was law and even young players had to do what the older ones demanded. That’s a far cry from the Canadian attitude, let alone the Israeli one, which is, ahem, not that impressed with authority.

Eizenman’s teammates on the Cranes came to know him as both an Israeli and a Canadian, but few had a clue about Jewish people. “People couldn’t even comprehend what Judaism is,” he said.

His teammates were curious and he did his best to explain it to them. “I became really close to almost all my teammates. People ask, how did you communicate? There’s a way to use the basic words in their language and they use the basic words in your language.”

Eizenman has also come to believe the truism that 90 per cent of communications is non-verbal.

And that just proved another truism, that sport transcends different cultures, so that you don’t have to know how to say “face wash” in Japanese to get along.

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