UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Of the almost 50 players that attended the New York Islanders' developmental camp last week, there was one invitee that really stood out -- for geographic reasons.
Mei Ushu, a 20-year old, 6-foot, 196-pound defenseman from Japan started playing hockey when he was seven years old after friends got him into it. Even with the young start he didn't expect to be playing at age 20, Ushu said through his interpreter, Taka Shirai.
In those 13 years since taking up the sport, Ushu has quickly risen up the ranks of the growing hockey culture in Japan. Currently playing for Waseda University in Shinjuko, Tokyo, Ushu has played for Japan's U-18 and U-20 National teams, captaining the latter.
The connection between the Islanders and Ushu is through Shirai, who used to intern with the team. He keeps in contact with Islanders GM Garth Snow and arranged for Ushu to participate in this year's development camp. At last year's developmental camp, Kotaro Yamada represented Japan as an invitee.
It's not the first time the Islanders have reached out to Asia. They've has hosted the Lighthouse International Tournament every year since 2008 at Nassau Coliseum featuring youth teams from Europe and Asia, and through an initiative by owner Charles Wang, American teams have traveled to China to play over there.
Nerves were something Ushu had to deal with during his week in Isles camp. Between trying to communicate with teammates to the smaller rink size in North America and the quicker pace of the game, Ushu eventually settled in.
"He was really nervous before coming here because there are guys drafted and he's not," said Shirai. "But now he's really enjoying [himself] because he's skating with talented players. He hasn't really gotten used to this kind of environment with this kind of skill level."
Trying to communicate was an issue, but key hockey terminology and observing how different drills were organized helped Ushu keep up with the rest of the camp attendees.
"On the ice, he's learning. Everybody's doing their best all the time and he's getting that kind of feeling. He's learning how to move his body and how to move his legs. Just seeing other people, he's learning."
Ushu's first trip to North America was a learning experience off the ice as well.
During his week in New York, Ushu has made the most of his time in the Big Apple visiting Times Square, fishing with other Islanders prospects in the Long Island Sound and attending Friday night's New York Mets-Philadelphia Phillies game at CitiField.
Ushu said he's only able to follow the NHL through NHL.com and that he enjoys watching Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina(notes), though he doesn't try to model his game after the 13-year veteran.
What he wanted to take away from his time at Isles camp was a combination of hockey and culture. Seeing how North American players approached the game and handled themselves on the ice was something Ushu will learn from as he heads back to Japan this week.
He'll play a second season at Waseda University next season, but before that he'll attend a camp for top Asian players along with accepting an invite to play for Japan's U-22 team.
But as he told NewYorkIslanders.com, Ushu would love to be back on Long Island as his hockey career progresses.
"I want to keep putting on this jersey."
"It's so exciting to be here, so I would be even more excited to play here. I would be honored. It would be great to stay and play here."
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