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Skates like the wind

He’s fast and he’s quick

and now he’s ‘Ice-K’

By Ben Pherson

bpherson@postbulletin.com

Minnesota Ice Hawks coach Nick Fatis believes junior hockey coaches across the country made a huge mistake regarding Issei Kashima.

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But boy is he glad they did.

If those coaches had seen what Fatis sees in Kashima, the speedy skater certainly would not be wearing an Ice Hawks sweater this season.

"I think he’s got Division I talent and Division I tools," Fatis said of Kashima. "These junior coaches look at him and think he’s too small. Well, whatever. He’s skating against bigger guys and holding his own against bigger guys, so I don’t buy it."

Kashima is a rarity — in more ways than one — among junior hockey players.

He skates like the wind, as fast as any top-end player in the North American Hockey League, Fatis said. "His speed is mesmerizing."

While Kashima’s speed sets him apart, his cultural background also is rare. Kashima, who his Ice Hawks teammates have affectionately dubbed "Ice-K," is of Japanese decent. Though he was born in Chicago, his parents — Yoko and Michihiro — were born in different regions of Japan.

Kashima’s mother, Yoko, came to the United States when she was 18. Kashima’s father, Michihiro, attended college in Arizona and later moved to Chicago, where he met Yoko.

The family moved to North Carolina shortly after Kashima’s birth.

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At age 10, Kashima started playing roller hockey. And at 13, he played ice hockey for the first time.

"I was a late starter," Kashima said. "My dad taught me all the little things about hockey I needed to know. I definitely got my work ethic from him."

Hockey isn’t exactly a big-time sport in North Carolina, which meant training and playing opportunities were scarce for Kashima.

So at age 14, Kashima left his family for a prep school in Canada.

"It wasn’t easy, leaving my family when I was that young. But it teaches you a lot of things," Kashima said.

He spent three years at the prep school before joining a Junior B hockey team in New Jersey. Since then, he’s bounced around with several junior hockey teams in Canada and on the East Coast, including the Northern Massachusetts Cyclones. Ice Hawks fans will remember the Cyclones as the team that eliminated them from the national tournament last season.

Over the last six weeks, Kashima has tried out for two NAHL teams, two teams in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and again with the Cyclones.

They all told him the same thing — he’s too small.

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"My size hurts, and my age," said Kashima, who is 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds. He has a 1988 birth date, which means he’s in his final year of junior hockey. "They see I’m an ’88, and they don’t think there’s potential there. Nobody really believed in me."

Kashima said that’s the biggest difference about skating with the Ice Hawks — he has coaches and teammates who have faith in him.

"Last year with the Cyclones, I came in and I was one of the top players," Kashima said. "Then I went through a slump, and the coach basically never gave me another chance.

"Here, the coach believes in me. He believes in the Ice Hawks."

For the next few months, Kashima will work to polish his hockey skills in hopes of landing a spot on a Division I hockey team. He believes he must become a more physical player for that to happen, especially because of his size.

But there’s little doubt in Fatis’ mind that Kashima can play at the next level.

"I think the thing that sticks out about Ice-K, aside from his speed, is his work ethic," Fatis said. "He’s got some natural talent, but most of what he’s done is through sheer determination and hard work."

When asked about that hard work and resolve, Kashima’s face lit up.

"My dad, he’s always been there for me, and he’s shown me how to work hard," Kashima said. "My mom and my dad have done a lot for me, and I couldn’t be more thankful."

Pages D6, D7:Ice Hawks season preview

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