PORTLAND – It started with a man walking into a sushi bar.
It was the late 1980s, when Sapporo was on Free Street and the Maine Mariners hockey team was a big deal in town.
The man was Steve Tsujiura, the favorite player of many Mariners fans, including the restaurant’s sushi chef, Takahiro Sato.
“Pure Japanese. Good player,” Sato said, explaining why he liked Tsujiura. “Small, but fast.”
When the Mariners star walked into Sapporo that night, Sato introduced himself.
A quarter-century later and a block down the street, Sato, now the owner of Yosaku restaurant, and Tsujiura, a sales manager at Pape Chevrolet, skated side-by-side in the Cumberland County Civic Center, no longer adoring fan and local star, but teammates in the Greater Portland Industrial Hockey League.
Thursday night’s practice game was meant to prepare them for later this week, when the men will go to their homeland with a dozen other men’s league players in tow. In two charity games to benefit young victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, they’ll take on squads of Japanese players, including former teammates of Tsujiura from the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
“We’re just the supporting cast,” said Brian Marcaurelle, the youngest player on the team at 33 years old. Tsujiura is the main attraction, and Sato is the one who made it all happen.
The trip has been in the making for years – ever since Sato, from behind the sushi bar at Yosaku, heard Tsujiura and his wife, Shelly, talking about wanting to go back to Japan to see the cherry blossoms.
“Thoughts started,” Sato said last week.
Tsujiura, who grew up in Canada, was among a handful of players with Japanese heritage who were recruited to play hockey for Japan in the 1998 Olympics.
He joined the Japanese national team a few years before the Winter Games. His wife and two small children lived with him during hockey season, but were always back home in Scarborough for the spring.
When the group leaves Thursday for Tokyo, the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom. Shelly Tsujiura, a teacher at Scarborough Middle School, has to stay at home for work. But seeing the pink flowers isn’t the point anymore.
“You can see the pride in Tak and Steve when they talk about what we’re going to do over there,” said their teammate, Joe Ouellette.
TWO PATHS INTO HOCKEY
Since the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in 2011, Sato has been collecting donations in a box near the hostess stand at his restaurant on Danforth Street. It was stolen once, but, despite the loss, he has sent several thousand dollars to a charity, called Ashinaga, that supports children who lost parents in the natural disaster. And he’s not done yet.
“Children are the future, not old people,” Sato said with a smile last week, sitting on the other side of the sushi bar with a bento box in front of him.
Sato, 67, is the second-oldest of the men’s league players who are going to Japan. Team captain John Whitman, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has him beat by a year.
A native of Hokkaido, Sato didn’t see a hockey game until he moved to Tokyo for college at Waseda University — the Harvard of Japan, as he put it. He said he was accepted only because of speed-skating; in high school, he was No. 2 in the nation in the 500-meter event. But after seeing hockey, he decided to switch.
Tsujiura, 51, started playing at a younger age — 5 or so, he guesses.
“I’m Canadian,” he explained, so playing youth hockey was as obligatory as getting a birth certificate.
He started missing class for early morning practice when he was 16 and joined a junior league, a feeder system for the pros, he said.
Tsujiura was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers before he was 20 and started playing for their farm team, the Maine Mariners, in 1982 — a time when minor league hockey was huge in Portland.
A speedy center with a knack for scoring goals, the 5-foot-5-inch Tsujiura quickly became a fan favorite.
After one of his games, he was introduced to a girl from Jay who had been the guest of some season-ticket holders. He asked her to HuShang, a popular Chinese restaurant near the civic center. Three years later, he asked her to be his wife.
TSUJIURA: HUMBLE AND CLASSY
Since then, no matter where Tsujiura has lived, his home has been Maine.
After the Olympics, he coached the Japanese national team for four years before deciding he needed to spend more time with his children and got a job selling cars at Pape Chevrolet in South Portland.
Now a sales manager, he’s known in the showroom as “The Hammer” — a nickname that makes him smile and shake his head, his response to almost anything complimentary.
Ask Tsujiura about his hockey career, and he’ll say he was unexceptional.
At his size, he said, a player has to be amazing at something to play in the National Hockey League. “You have to score really good or skate faster than everyone,” he said.
That wasn’t him, he’ll tell you.
His humility is part of what made him such a well-liked player both in Japan and here, where kids like Joe Ouellette, a Lewiston native and his current teammate, idolized him.
“You could see that he was a special player, that he wasn’t really getting into fights,” said Ouellette, who had a collection of autographs from Tsujiura.
When he plays with him, Ouellette said, Tsujiura’s character is even more apparent. “He’s just a class act,” Ouellette said.
Sato hopes Tsujiura’s star power will draw a big crowd to the 2,500-seat Shin Yokohama Skate Center.
“He’s very popular. They have Stevie’s fan group. All girl likes him,” Sato said last week, prompting Tsujiura to smile and shake his head.
Word from Japan was that the first 1,000 tickets had sold and more were being printed, Sato told the group after practice Thursday.
PRACTICE AND CAMARADERIE
As always, they had gathered back at Yosaku, known to the men’s league players as the clubhouse, where Sato stuffs them on a weekly basis with sushi and beer.
The travel team, wearing white jerseys with USA on the front, played that night against a group of younger guys from the men’s league.
“Dress rehearsal,” Sato called it.
He and Tsujiura mostly hung back on defense while their teammates handled the goal-scoring.
But at one point, Tsujiura intercepted a pass and started down the rink with only one opponent between him and the goal. He shot and scored, then glided back to the bench, smiling the whole time — something he’s exceptional at.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: