New Generation of Asian-American Hockey Players Go Pro After Historic NHL Draft
Nick Suzuki #17 of the Las Vegas Golden Knights tries to get past Evan McEneny #61 of the Vancouver Canucks in NHL pre-season action at Rogers Arena on September 17, 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.Rich Lam / Getty Images
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CHICAGO — Suzuki and Yamamoto are not names that show up often on the back of National Hockey League (NHL) jerseys.
But teenagers Nick Suzuki and Kailer Yamamoto — both picked in the first round of June’s 2017 NHL draft in Chicago — may be the start of a new trend.
This year’s draft was historic, with Suzuki, Yamamoto, and Jason Robertson plucked in the first two rounds, the most Asian Americans to ever go that high in a single NHL draft according to William Douglas, a journalist from The Color of Hockey, which tracks diversity in the sport.
“Asian-American players have gone high in the NHL draft before,” Douglas told NBC News. “But this is a first time that you've had such a cluster of players drafted in the early rounds.”
"It's definitely a big opportunity. I want to show everybody you can do it, no matter what."
Sooner than later, this might become the norm. As the Asian population has grown in United States and Canada, more and more Asian kids have taken up ice hockey, according to a team executive.
During the 2015-2016 season, 983 players appeared in a regular season NHL game, according to statistics from NHL.com. Just four of them — Matt Dumba, Devin Setoguchi, Jujhar Khaira, and Joshua Ho-Sang — appear to be of Asian descent.
"We've seen an increase in the number of players who have Asian heritage," Mike Oke — general manager of the Peterborough Petes, which play in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) — said. The OHL is one of the NHL's primary feeder leagues.
Suzuki grew up in London, Ontario, a city halfway between Toronto and Detroit.
According to his father, Suzuki’s great-great-grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1909. They, along with Suzuki's great-grandparents and grandfather were incarcerated in Kaslo, British Columbia, during World War II.
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"From a Canadian perspective, some of the hockey players today, their parents immigrated to Canada, either as young teens or as adults, and therefore, weren't exposed to the game of hockey at a young age," Oke, the hockey executive, said. "Whereas now, the second and third generation of individuals who immigrated have been born and raised and inundated with the game of hockey."
"I'm glad we're getting our culture out," Yamamoto, whose name was called by the Edmonton Oilers with the 22nd pick, said.
According to Yamamoto’s father, three generations of Yamamotos were born and raised in Spokane, Washington, including Kailer and himself. Before the Yamamotos settled in the Pacific Northwest, Saichi Yamamoto immigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii, meeting his wife Momoyo. Both Saichi and Momoyo Yamamoto were incarcerated during World War II.
Unlike Nick Suzuki and Kailer Yamamoto, Jason Robertson, whose mother is of Filipino descent, did not grow up in a hockey hotbed. He was born and raised in the city of Arcadia in Southern California.
"I love hockey, I want everybody to be part of it," Robertson, who went 39th overall to the Dallas Stars, said.
"From an American perspective, the sport has really outgrown what used to be the traditional pockets. In the past, hockey was typically played in some of the colder climate states," Oke noted. "But now, with the expansion of the NHL into the southern climes such as California and Nevada and Arizona and Texas and Florida — you have people in those particular areas, for the first time, able to participate from a young age."
Combined, those states have an Asian-American population of more than six million people, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly a third of the country’s Asian-American population.
For each prospect, the prejudice that trailblazing Asian NHL'ers like Larry "King" Kwong and Jim Paek suffered was not something they dealt with.
"It's been a coast for me," Yamamoto said, smiling. "Everywhere I've gone, people have treated me with utmost respect."
"Whoever you are, whatever you are, it all comes down to hard work and dedication," Robertson said.
“Asian-American players have gone high in the NHL draft before. But this is a first time that you've had such a cluster of players drafted in the early rounds.”
But at least one aspect of their careers is similar to Kwong and Paek. Each is proud of being an example for Asian-American kids who don't have a lot of role models in the sport.
"It's definitely a big opportunity," acknowledged Suzuki. "I want to show everybody you can do it, no matter what."
They're already influencing their siblings: 16-year-old Ryan Suzuki and 15-year-old Nick Robertson were both selected in the first round of the most recent OHL Priority Selection, held on April 8. This junior-level draft is often a precursor to the NHL edition.
So it’s possible there will be more Suzukis, Yamamotos, and Robertsons banging down the door of the NHL soon.
“This isn't a one-shot deal,” Douglas, the journalist, said.
Suzuki concurs, "There's definitely a lot [of Asians] coming up."
CORRECTION (Sept. 27, 2017, 3:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Nick Suzuki's relationship with the members of his family who immigrated to Canada. Suzuki's great-great-grandparents immigrated, not his great-grandparents.