Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter! - The Kokudo Bunnies and Seibu Prince Rabbits

In honor of the arrival today of the Easter Bunny, today we look at the history of the Seibu Prince Rabbits of the Asia Ice Hockey League. The team was founded as the Kokudo Keikaku Ice Hockey Club in Karuizawa, Japan in 1972 and was known as the Kokudo Bunnies. It would take just two years for the club to win their first Japan Ice Hockey League championship in 1974-75.

Kokudo Bunnies logo photo Kokudo Bunnies logo.jpg
The Kokudo Bunnies logo

Also during that season Kokudo would also win the 1975 All Japan Ice Hockey Championship, an open tournament similar to England's FA Cup, a playoff for amateur and professional teams from all levels of competition. In the All Japan Ice Hockey Championship, which dates back to 1930, teams eligible include professional, amateur and university teams and is contested over a single week in February as a single elimination tournament.

Their second JIHL title would arrive in 1978 followed by their second All Japan Championship in 1982. In 1984, the club moved 2 hours southeast from central Japan to Shinagawa, Tokyo. While located in the capital, they won the Japan League in 1985-86, the All Japan Championship in 1988, the league title again in 1988-89 and the All Japan crown for the fourth time in 1990.

In 1991, the were again on the move in search of greener pastures, the club relocated 30 minutes south to Yokohama. There, they enjoyed their greatest success, taking the Japan League championship in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2003 as well as the All Japan championship three consecutive years in 1997, 1998 and 1999 as well as 2003.

Kokudo Bunnies 2002-03 Team photo Kokudo Bunnies 2002-03 Team.jpg
The Bunnies celebrate their final championship in 2003

In 2003, the Kukudo Bunnies merged with the Seibu Railways Ice Hockey Club and relocated once again 30 miles to the northeast Tokyo area where Seibu was based and became known as the Seibu Lions. There, the team continued its tradition of success, winning the final Japan League championship in 2003-04, their 13th league title. That season they once again won "the double" for the fifth time when they captured that season's All Japan championship.

Seibu Lions photo seibu_lions.jpg
The Bunnies became known as the Seibu Lions following their
2003 merger with the Seibu Railways Ice Hockey Club

For the 2004-05 season, difficult economic times led to the demise of the JIHL and the formation of a new league, Asia League Ice Hockey, which included teams from not just Japan, but also one from South Korea, two from China and one from eastern Russia. The Seibu Lions took home the Asia League crown twice, in both 2005 and 2006. In 2006, the team acquired sponsorship from Prince Hotels and changed their name to the Seibu Prince Rabbits.

Seibu Prince Rabbits photo rabbits.jpg
The final chapter of the franchise was as the Seibu Prince Rabbits

As the Prince Rabbits, they added two more pieces of hardware to their extensive trophy case, the All Japan tournament title in 2008 and 2009, their 10th and 11th such victories.

 Rabbits goalie and captain photo Rabbits goalie and captain.jpg
 The uniforms of the Seibu Prince Rabbits

In December of 2008, Prince Hotels announced their intention to fold the team after one final season, citing funding difficulties in a difficult economic climate and the decline of the popularity of hockey in Japan. After negotiating with over twenty companies to sell the club, all efforts proved fruitless and the club ceased operations after 37 seasons on March 31, 2009 with 13 Japan League, 2 Asia League and 15 combined league titles and 11 All Japan Championships, 26 in all. The end of the Rabbits left the Tokyo region without a hockey team, a situation which remains to this day.

Rabbits Goal, Victory, Glory photo Rabbits Goal Victory
Goal, Victory, Glory!

Notable players for the Rabbits were Hiroyuki Miura, the first (actual) Japanese player ever drafted by the NHL when he was selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. Miura represented Japan at the 1993 World Junior Championships, five World Championships and the 1998 Olympics and was a seven time JIHL champion.

Hiroyuki Miura Lions photo Hiroyuki Miura.jpg
Hiroyuki Miura when the club was known as the Lions

Another notable Rabbit was goaltender Yataka Fukufuji, who became the first Japanese player in the NHL when he suited up for the Los Angeles Kings during the 2006-07 season. He played three seasons with the Rabbits, six seasons in North America, primarily in the ECHL, as well as pro leagues in the Netherlands and Denmark and five seasons in the Asia League. Additionally, Fukufuji has represented Japan at both the 2000 World Championships, three U20 World Championships and seven World Championships to date.

Well known import players who laced up the skates for the Rabbits are former NHLers John Tucker and Joel Prpic and Canadian Chris Yule, who holds the record for Most Career Goals in the Asia League. Perhaps best known is five time Stanley Cup champion Randy Gregg, who took the unusual route of playing for Kokudo before he joined the Edmonton Oilers in 1981-82, not afterwards as a way to extend his career.

kokudo_joe Prpic 2003 photo kokudo_joe Prpic 2003.jpg
Taro Nihei, goalie Jiro Nihei, Joel Prpic and Chris Yule
with their championship trophy in 2003

Today's featured jersey is a 2001-02 Kokudo Bunnies Ryan Kuwabara jersey. This jersey is from the days before the merger with Seibu and the era when the club was known as the Lions and later the Prince Rabbits.

Kokudo Bunnies 2001-02 jersey photo Kokudo Bunnies 2001-02 F jersey.jpg
Kokudo Bunnies 2001-02 jersey photo Kokudo Bunnies 2001-02 B jersey.jpg

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