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

PORTLAND – It started with a man walking into a sushi bar.

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.

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.


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.

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