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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Native sons score for ancestry

    By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun
    NAGANO --  They're called the Seven Gaijin Samurai - except now there are six.
     They're six young men, from places like Edmonton and Hamilton, who grew up playing hockey, dreaming of one day playing in the Stanley Cup final. None of them made it that far.
      Now they have a new dream, in a new country. They're playing hockey at the 18th Winter Olympics for Japan, the land of their ancestors.
     Ryan Kuwabara of Hamilton played junior hockey for the Ottawa 67s, scoring 43 goals and 57 assists in his final year, and was a second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens.
     An NHL career didn't pan out, and four years ago when he was invited to play in the Japanese Ice Hockey League.
     Last month, Kuwabara, five other Japanese-Canadians and one Japanese-American were granted citizenship. The American is gone, but Kuwabara and the other Canadians will lead the underdog Japanese team in opening-round hockey action, starting tomorrow against Germany.
     Kuwabara, 25, is a fourth-generation Canadian. He couldn't speak Japanese, had never been here, always felt as Canadian as the Maple Leaf. But now, since joining the Kokudo Bunnies, he has experienced a transformation.
     "When I got here," he said, "I got to understand why my (great) grandparents do certain things they do, which I never understood before."
     It's the same situation with New Westminster, B.C., native Dusty Imoo, who played goal for his home-town club in the Western Hockey League, then made the trek four years ago. He was the Japanese league MVP in 1994-95.
     Lethbridge native Ryan Fujita, a 56-goal scorer for the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, has developed a new-found pride in his ancestry.
     "It's kind of hard to put into words," Fujita, 25, said. "It's been a long journey, but it's been so worth it."
     The Samurai - the others are Matthew Kabayama and Steve Tsujiura of Coaldale, Alta., and Chris Yule of Edmonton - were granted citizenship in December with the purpose of helping the Japanese hockey team save face - that is not get blown out in its home Olympics.
     A few weeks ago, Kuwabara & Co. led the Japanese team to a 1-2-2 record against the visiting Canadian national squad.
     And three of them were involved in what they describe as Japanese hockey's defining moment - a bench-clearing brawl against the Canadians during a game in Kobe - a first for most of the Japanese-born players.
     "I couldn't believe it," Kuwabara said. "It was crazy. I thought I was back in Canada."