As the summer winds down and players return to their respective training camps, some make the choice to head overseas. For many, especially players at the minor league level, it is a chance to deepen their skill set and potentially make more money than they might earn stateside. When one thinks hockey overseas, European leagues are the first to come to mind. But the game is thriving across the Pacific in the Asian Leagues, where a steady import of talent particularly from Canada and the United States is raising the bar for hockey in places like South Korea, Japan and China. Last year, former NHLer Ric Jackman signed a three-year contract with the South Korean Anyang Halla, a team in the Asia League Ice Hockey (ALH), increasing the visibility of the sport along the Pacific Rim.
The Asian league is made up of seven teams: the Anyang Halla and High1 in South Korea, the China Dragon, and the Ice Bucks, Paper Cranes, Eagles and Free Blades in Japan. Each team is allowed a small number of player imports to help improve skill level and raise competitiveness. This year, Las Vegas Wranglers forward Eric Lampe decided to trade the desert for the island of Hokkaido, Japan, entering into a one -year contract with the Oji Eagles. Lampe had a very successful past two seasons with the Wranglers, both years a top goal scorer, ECHL All-Star and with several call ups to the AHL. He felt that he had worked hard and that an American League deal was next for him. When the NHL lockout happened last season, it cut into opportunities for players looking to move up in the leagues. When it came time to make a decision to return to the Wranglers for a third season, Lampe opted to go overseas.
“I had a really good year and I was really hoping to sign an American League deal, and that didn’t really happen with the lockout and everything so I came back for another year in Vegas and I felt like I deserved to get another shot up there (AHL). I felt it was time for me to maybe go over to Europe and try to make some more money and tour the world.
The option to play overseas for an Asian League team wasn’t initially what Lampe had in mind but after talking with former teammate and now Head Coach of the Wranglers, Mike Madill, it seemed like a viable alternative to playing in the European leagues.
“I still don’t know much about the Asian Hockey League and the only way I really knew about it was because Coach Mike Madill played over there for a year right when the Tsunami hit. He said it was a great experience and they treat you really well and that it’s a very professional league.”
Madill played in the Asian League with the Nippon Paper Cranes during the 2010-2011 season, the end of which was marked by the earthquake and tsunami that battered the region in March 2011. During an earlier interview with the Wranglers Coach, Madill reflected on his experience with the Japanese team:
“When you get to the rink its about as similar as it can get… they take hockey there pretty seriously, the kids, its packed in the rinks. They start at a young age and they all want to play for the Cranes.We had only 2 Canadian players and the rest were Japanese so the language barrier was a little different but they really appreciated the more Japanese we learned, they could see that we were trying real hard, and they would try just as hard so it was a great tradeoff. The people were so respectful, so honest, just people in general but also businesswise too. When they tell you ‘you are getting paid’ you get paid on that day every time they say it’s going to happen. I know guys go overseas and sometimes there are some issues with that but, it was such an amazing experience in that way.”
Madill kept in contact with the Japanese teams and helped make the connection for Eric Lampe, putting his name out there. When the chance came to play for the Oji Eagles for the 2013-2014 season, Lampe “felt it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.” The Oji Eagles are looking to their imported talent to help the team out, particularly with respect to goals.
“I think they are looking for me to obviously score some goals for them and contribute on the offensive end and obviously they only have 3 imports and so they really count on their imports to produce and help the team out quite a bit.”
In addition to Lampe, the team brought in T.J. Kemp , a defenceman who most recently played for the Italian Ritten Renon and forward Mike Kompon, who played with Munich EHC the past two years. Although, Lampe has never played with either, the hockey world is still pretty small and so he feels that it won’t be too hard to get to know one another. He feels that for the most part the transition to playing in Japan will be a smooth one, despite the language barrier.
“Hockey wise I really don’t think it will be that different, obviously the adjustment will be the language but for the most part I don’t think it will be too extreme that I won’t be able to pick it up. The translator is on the bench with us as well so I think it will be good.”
Lampe, it seems, is one of several Las Vegas Wranglers who have decided to give the Asian leagues a go. He will have several former teammates and friends that he’ll be playing against this season.
“Adam Miller, he played my first year in Vegas with me, he’s actually heading over there and will be playing for the Nippon Paper Cranes, where Mike Madill played. Ned Lukacevic, he also played my first year for a couple months, he’s over there right now, he plays for the Koku Free Blades, so there’s 3 of us that actually know one another.”
Although Lampe is ready for the change and is excited to experience a new culture and meet his new teammates, the Madison, WI native will miss Las Vegas and the Wranglers organization.
“I’m really gonna miss everyone in the organization, I’ve gotten a lot of good friendships out of it and thank all the fans for the support they’ve given me and I wish them the best this season. They really do have a good fan base and hopefully they can keep it going into the championship this year.”
Best of Luck to Eric and his new team the Oji Eagles, who begin their season on September 7th when they take on the Nikko Icebucks. A full schedule and more information about the Asian Leagues can be found here.