On 28 March 2009, as part of the Seibu Prince Rabbits fan appreciation day, there was a Seibu Railways (Polar Bears) – Kokudo (Bunnies) oldtimers game (Seibu Prince Rabbits are a result of the merger between Seibu Railways and Kokudo teams, both owned by the Seibu Group, in 2003. In fact, the Seibu Railway team split into Kokudo in 1972, shortly after the club was formed in 1966, a now jailed Tsutsumi CEO project, he was a huge hockey fan who even took Daisuke Matsuzaka to a Seibu hockey game shortly after he was drafted to the Lions).
Here are some great photos and story (Japanese) from the oldtimers game. The advert-less unis look wonderful, as the old rivals squared off for one last time. There were 44 Seibu oldtimers and 29 Kokudo seniors. Seibu had a ringer in current Nikko IceBuck Hideji Tsuchida (sorta like Mark Messier in the Canadiens v Oilers oldtimers superstars match while he was still an active Ranger). The oldtimers game ended in a fitting 5-5 tie.
Apparently more than 20 companies made inquiries about taking the Rabbits off Seibu’s hands, but the 5-oku (~$5m) operating cost and average attendance of 1,000 was the deal breaker (in the 70s(?) hockey was able to draw crowds of 10,000 at Yoyogi Arena). Though I doubt that any of the discussions went too deep, because it’s possible to run an Asia League hockey club on less than half that budget, like the Nikko IceBucks are doing. Something tells me that Seibu wanted to get rid of its hockey arm, as part of eliminating the Tsutsumi colours, what with the former group president being convicted for large scale fraud. (And I suspect that’s the similar reasoning behind the Saitama Seibu Lions moving away from the sky blue and Osamu Tezuka Leo logo towards almost-black navy and the weird lion palm and baseball logo, though the faux-Detroit Tigers unis are classy.)
Here’s the official statement from the AL Chairman about Seibu folding. The one positive is that he mentions that the league is rather positive about accepting new teams into the now 6 team league (same size as the old Japanese Ice Hockey League). This is good news for the Tohoku Free Blades who have an exhibition game against the Oji Eagles on 5 April at 13:00 at the Bandai Atami Ice Arena in Koriyama, Fukushima (one of the Blades’ home towns). The Blades have already played an exhibition match against the AL last place team Nikko, so the increasing involvement with AL teams is positive development for the Blades to join the AL. (I’m also hoping that the western Japan powerhouse Surpass Kagawa will eventually join the AL as well, but there are no current rumours.)
So, there’s a decent chance that the AL will still be a 7 team league next season, despite being weakened by the loss of Seibu (though this opens the door for the Korean and Chinese teams, which is a welcome change). Apparently 12-15 Seibu players have a chance of catching on with another team in Asia or Europe next seasons, others are likely to become regular Seibu Group employees. Though with the lack of funding for the Blades, they look unlikely to be taking on the expensive Seibu players.
A short Q&A was held with the Seibu hockey club owner (president) Koyama on 31 March when the official team folding was announced. Here’s the abridged version (full version in Japanese here).
Q: What was the reasoning behind the timing of this press conference?
A: Each team must submit player transfer/release list by mid-April, hence the timing.
Q: How will the players be treated going forward?
A: Individual interviews will be conducted with each player during April. The key question is whether players want to keep on playing hockey or joing the company (Seibu) full-time and start working on regular jobs. We will support the players as much as possible.
Q: What are the specific plans to support the players?
A: Players will be able to stay in the team dorm until July. Request has been made to the company so that the (semi-pro) players will be given a 2 year sabbatical from the company to pursue their hockey careers if that is their wish.
Q: What will happen to company referees and coaches who contribute to the AL?
A: Immediately pulling them out will cause trouble for the league, so we are in discussion with officials such as the federation for their future. The rink (Higashifushimi) will continue to operate as usual (as the home of the women’s Princess Rabbits team, figure skating, and public skating.)
Q: What were the reactions inside the company regarding the hockey team folding?
A: The company itself is undergoing major restructuring, so this issue went rather unnoticed compared to the past.
Q: How did the discussions go with prospective buyers of the team?
A: 20 to 25 companies from Tokyo and outside Tokyo expressed interest. They were interested in hockey as a sport, but the average attendance of 1000+ made serious discussion difficult, and ultimately ended in failure.
Incidentally, 2008-09 average attendance:
１: Oji Eagles 1498 (all games over 1000)
2: Seibu Prince Rabbits (attendance boosted after team folding announcement)
3: Nippon Paper Cranes 1211
4: Anyang Halla 1052
5: Nikko IceBucks 1013 (used to have over 4000 supporters when the club first formed 10 years ago)
6: High1 488 (all tickets are free, but no advertising, sponsor must be loaded)
7: China Sharks (many comp tickets given out, attracting thousands of fans at some games, hopefully they gained some traction in the Shanghai student town.)