He played professionally for 20 years in the Japan Ice Hockey League with Snow Brand Sapparo. Since retiring as a player, Yuji Iwamoto has turned to coaching. The 50-year old Iwamoto, who has been a head coach for Japan's under-20 team that has competed at the World Junior Hockey Championships, took his coaching skills to the United States in 2009. The Japan-born Iwamoto is now in his second season as an assistant coach with the Jamestown Ironmen of the North American Hockey League. Following is a transcript of an interview that I conducted with Iwamoto through his interpreter and close friend Kenji Yamada. Yamada is the owner of the Jamestown team.
RUSSON: This is the second season for the Ironmen in Jamestown, N.Y. after the franchise moved from the Detroit area. After missing the playoffs in 2010-11, the Ironmen are off to a good start this 2012-13 NAHL season with a record of 8-2-2. What has been the difference from last season to this season?
IWAMOTO: One of the major factors is that we have a new team, veteran players have improved their play and we added new players who bring in a different aspect to the team. In addition to that, another big factor is we have changed our practice, game plan and team systems that relate directly to the game.
RUSSON: Explain your role as an assistant to Ironmen coach-general manager Dan Daikawa. What do your duties consist of?
IWAMOTO: I develop everyday practice plan -- on ice and off ice -- game plans, team systems, offence and defense lines. Dan is communicating our plan to the players and conducting practices. Currently, this role sharing works well for our team.
RUSSON: Being born and raised and having lived most of your life in Japan, is the language barrier a problem for you in coaching junior-aged players in the United States?
IWAMOTO: I do not say 'no barrier at all' because, time to time, I feel like I want to give more detail instruction and advice to our players. However, at the same time, our players are reaching to the certain level where if I give them small advice on their play or game, they will grasp what I meant and understand my advice pretty soon. Also, Dan's support to deliver my message to the players, with having his Japanese living and playing experience, is helping me a lot to be effective with the team.
RUSSON: How would you describe your relationship with the players?
IWAMOTO: I think our players recognize me as an advising uncle who gives them effective but sometimes painful advice for hockey.
RUSSON: How would you describe your relationship with Coach Daikawa?
IWAMOTO: We have clear understanding for each other's role and responsibility, thus we are supporting each other and have built a productive relationship.
RUSSON: What are your current and future goals as a coach?
IWAMOTO: To lead the Ironmen to Robertson Cup championship this year. Also, develop our players to be able to play in the next level, as much as possible, and I want our players to think that they have a good experience playing on this team. In the long term, I want to bring back this experience to Japan, and develop the Japan teams to be able to compete at higher level, that is also my goal.
RUSSON: Do you think there will come a day when Japanese-born players will have an impact on hockey in North America?
IWAMOTO: I strongly hope so, and I believe it is possible. To make this happen in the near future is Kenji's and my mission, I think. And by trying to achieve this, we can upgrade Japanese hockey.
RUSSON: How special would it be for a player from Japan to one day suit up for the Jamestown Ironmen?
IWAMOTO: Two years ago, one Japanese player by name of Konno played for our team for 2009-2010 season when we were the Motor City Metal Jackets. He showed us that top level Japanese player can compete at this level. I believe that more Japanese players can come and play in this league, they have good skills, especially skating and puck-handling skills. But at the same time, many Japanese players need to learn more about the game, especially the games in the small ice where there is more traffic and body contact. Puck protection, body contact, quicker decision making, those are the key areas where Japanese players need to improve.
RUSSON: Tell us about the vision that you and Kenji share for hockey in Japan as it relates to North America?
IWAMOTO: Our vision for Japanese hockey is to develop Japanese hockey as a sport and business. There are several key areas where we need to improve Japanese hockey and those elements are inter-related each other. One thing is, we need to develop our national team, especially our U-20 team which is the key since they are the player pool for next generation. Once we start sending our national team to Olympics and World Championships, then a huge fan base will come back to hockey. We used to have a large hockey market in Japan 20 years ago and that potential fan base is still there. Second, we need to develop our domestic hockey market. Currently we have only four professional teams in Japan so we need to promote more competition among domestic teams in Japan. Thus we think that we need to learn how to run a league, how to organize it, how to market it, how to promote it, and how to maintain it, then bring that learning back to Japan. We are trying very hard to run the Ironmen as a successful franchise in NAHL. At the same time, we keep learning those things from our experience and keep bringing our findings and learnings back to Japan.
RUSSON: Thank you for your time. Is there anything else that you would like to say beyond what I asked?
IWAMOTO: Thank you very much for this interview, Randy. We will try very hard to materialize good hockey on the ice. Please come and see the Ironmen home games at Jamestown Savings Bank Arena.