Keitaro Yasuda ’19 remembers attending his first hockey game with his family at NGK Arena in Nagoya, Japan. He was 7 at the time. The Eagles played the Cranes, two Asia League Ice Hockey teams, in an exhibition game.
“I loved it,” Yasuda said. “It was so fast paced. The gear, the helmets, the sticks, I thought it was so cool.”
Yasuda recently made the Japan U20 national team for the third time and will represent his country at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in December in Poland.
But what’s more impressive is Yasuda was the only high school player to make the 40-man prospect roster for Japan’s 2022 Olympic team. The roster will be cut to 25.
His story is one of drive and sacrifice; a boy chasing a college hockey dream.
After attending that hockey game when he was 7, he soon began playing and his passion quickly grew. Yasuda knew if he was going to play at a high level, he had to move to North America. So Yasuda finished elementary school and headed to PEAC Hockey School, an elite hockey academy in Toronto, Canada.
“It was tough,” said Yasuda, who left his family, friends and homeland at 12 years old. “I didn’t speak English. I had no friends. I thought about going back home so many times. But I loved hockey and I didn’t want to give up that dream.”
Yasuda spent one year with PEAC and transferred to Cheshire Academy as an 8th grader. The Academy became home. He suited up for the Cheshire Academy team up until last season when the program was cancelled. Several prep schools with hockey programs showed interest in Yasuda, but he chose to stay.
“I’ve been here for five years,” he said. “I’m comfortable here. I had the chance to go to other prep schools, but it didn’t feel right. It felt right here. It was the right decision.”
Yasuda is now playing for the Connecticut Chiefs, a program that has served as a pipeline to college hockey for many players. He’s grinding like many student-athletes, juggling school work, long drives to Newington for practice and playing hockey at an elite level. And it’s all been worth it.
“He’s always been a quiet, gentle kid,” said Sara Griesbach, Cheshire Academy’s director of residential life. “His confidence has grown here. What I’m most impressed with is how he’s pursuing a dream that requires him to spend most of his time outside his home country and family to achieve it.”
On the ice, Yasuda has great speed and piles up points whether it’s setting up teammates or finding the back of the net. He was a two-year captain for Cheshire Academy and recorded 22 goals and 31 assists in 45 games last season. He has also represented Japan on the ice for some time now. When Yasuda was 10 years old, he played for the Japan 12U national team. He went on to make Japanese history as the youngest player to make the 18U national team (15 years old) and then the youngest player to secure a spot on the 20U team (16 years old).
He came to North America to play Division I hockey and that remains his goal. Schools have shown interest, but Yasuda will likely take the more common route and play for a strong junior club team next year. And of course, he’s aiming to secure a spot on Japan’s final 2022 Olympic roster.
Hockey is a growing sport in Japan, but one that is shadowed by baseball, soccer and other sports. Yasuda’s journey coming here from Japan to play hockey is a rare one. But hockey is in his genes. Yasuda’s father played in college. His oldest brother, Takumi, played at Nagoya University and his other brother, Ayu, is captain at Kansai University, one of the top hockey schools in Japan.
His family made some financial sacrifices in order for him to pursue his dream. He uses that as motivation sometimes during early practice sessions or late night study sessions. It’s tough being away from his family, Yasuda said. He’s sees them for stretches during the winter and summer, and during spring break.
“My mom hated it so much,” he said. “She cried a lot.”
Yasuda has always been very goal-oriented. He and his father always come up with short and long term goals, both athletically and academically. He said it keeps him focused and driven. His father challenged Yasuda to make the 18U national team when he was 15. He did. He challenged Yasuda to average one point per game last year for Cheshire Academy. Mission accomplished. He also challenged him to earn first honors and become a prefect. Yasuda did both.
Playing Division I college hockey and taking the ice for Japan in the 2022 Olympics are up next for Yasuda. Don’t bet against him.