The Nippon Paper Cranes are folding after 70 years on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in the city of Kushiro. Owned by the paper manufacturing company Nippon Paper Industries, the team will cease operations at the end of the 2018-19 Asian League Ice Hockey (ALIH) Season due to declining revenue and a desire to streamline company management.
“This is a team that the people of Kushiro have raised. I wanted to see the team improve even more. This decision is extremely regrettable.”Hiroaki Sasaki, Nippon Paper Cranes General Manager
Founded as the Jūjō Paper Kushiro Ice Hockey Club in 1949, the team was renamed the Nippon Paper Cranes in 1994 after Jūjō Paper and Sanyō Kokusaku Pulp merged to form one of the largest pulp and paper industry companies in the world. The team competed in the All Japan Ice Hockey Championship and the Japan Ice Hockey League until the formation of the ALIH in 2003.
The Paper Cranes won the inaugural ALIH championship in 2004 and went on to win 3 more ALIH titles in 2007, 2009, and 2014. They have also won 7 Japanese championships since the merger in 1994 and have played an integral role in supporting the growth of hockey in Japan.
Nippon is currently second in the ALIH during a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in 2017-18. Much of their success this season can be attributed to terrific goaltending from newly-signed Canadian import Drew MacIntyre. A 35-year-old journeyman who had stints in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, MacIntyre has a .928 save percentage, good for third in the ALIH. The Cranes also have a fast-paced attack led by captain Hiroki Ueno, who has a team-leading 19 points in 27 games.
Nippon Paper has been “looking all over the nation to find companies that can take over” but has so far been unable to find a prospective owner. If the team folds, it will be the second time a high-profile Japanese team has folded recently after the Seibu Prince Rabbits did in 2009.