April 1, 2013

In Portland, Japanese pride grows into charitable goal

A former Maine Mariners star and his sushi chef teammate unite to help young victims of a tsunami.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Takahiro Sato, owner of Yosaku restaurant, has arranged for his Maine men’s league hockey team to go to Japan to play former Japanese Olympians to raise money for young victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Team members include, left to right in back row, Mark Hews, Joe Ouellette, Jeff Milburn, Takahiro Sato and James Witham, and in front row, John Whitman, Brian Marcaurelle, Steve Tsujiura, who played for the Maine Mariners, and Thomas Hall.

Photos by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Takahiro Sato, left, rooted for and admired Steve Tsujiura when Tsujiura starred for the Maine Mariners in the 1980s. Tsujiura is now a sales manager at Pape Chevrolet.

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:

lbridgers@pressherald.com

 

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