Profile: Ryan Kuwabara

Kuwabara is currently the Assistant Coach of the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League after an 18-year professional career. He is a third-generation Japanese-Canadian and was born in Hamilton, ON in 1972.

In 1989, Kuwabara was drafted by the Ottawa 67’s eighth overall in the OHL draft. He would spend the next three seasons in major junior hockey with the 67’s, scoring 107 goals and 240 points in 196 games playing on the right wing. In 1990, he won the Bobby Smith Trophy as the OHL’s Scholastic Player of the Year.

Kuwabara’s 12 goals and 27 points in 17 playoff games powered the 67’s to the conference finals during the 1991 OHL playoffs, although the team ultimately fell short to the Oshawa Generals.

In 1990, Kuwabara was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the NHL draft, 39th overall. He was the highest drafted player of Asian descent until Paul Kariya was drafted fourth overall in 1994.

Kuwabara started professional hockey in 1992 with the Wheeling Thunderbirds of the East Coast Hockey League, where he scored 20 points in 18 games during the regular season as well as 13 points in 16 playoff games. He spent another year in the Canadiens’ organization, playing for the Fredericton Canadiens in the American Hockey League during the 1993-94 season. Kuwabara scored 13 goals and 21 points in 44 AHL games.

After Japan was awarded the 1998 Olympics, players of Japanese descent were recruited to boost the national team. Due to IIHF regulations, interested players needed to spend four years in Japan prior to being eligible for the national team so Kuwabara joined Kokudo in the Japanese League (JIHL) for the 1994-95 season. He won the JIHL Championship during his first season in Kokudo on a veteran roster with a number of notable players including Steve Tsujiura and Toshiyuki Sakai.

During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Kuwabara scored two goals for his grandparents’ homeland. He continued to represent Japan internationally afterwards and competed in 5 world championships up to 2003, during which he scored 7 goals and 12 points.

“You get a chance to walk out with 80,000 people screaming and with all the other elite athletes in the world, it’s a pretty special feeling. Still a little surreal to be honest. You work your entire career to try and play in the NHL, and the second goal obviously for me when that didn’t happen was to play in the Olympics and lucky enough I got a chance to play in them.

Ryan Kuwabara, 2018 interview with ABC12

Kuwabara stayed in Kokudo until 2002, during which he won 5 JIHL championships in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, and 2002. He scored 131 goals and 257 points in 244 JIHL games. Kuwabara then spent a year with Belfast in the British League (BISL), during which he powered the Giants to BISL Championship in 2003 with 13 goals and 21 points in 18 playoff games.

Returning to Japan after a year in Britain, Kuwabara signed with the Nippon Paper Cranes. He led the JIHL’s successor, the newly formed Asian League of Ice Hockey (ALIH), in scoring (15 goals in 16 games) during the ALIH’s inaugural season and won the 2004 ALIH Championship, his fourth consecutive professional championship and sixth in seven seasons.

Kuwabara won another ALIH championship in 2007 and retired in 2009 after a year with the Korean team High1 of the ALIH. He had 95 goals and 201 points in 177 ALIH games.

In 2011, Kuwabara joined the Stoney Creek Warriors of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League as the team’s General Manager, later taking on head coach duties as well. He became part of the owner group of team, now relocated to Ancaster, in 2016 before being hired by Saginaw in 2017 as an Assistant Coach.

“Having observed him develop young players with Ancaster into OHL players and NHL draft picks, I am confident he will be a great asset to our coaching staff. His experience in hockey is unique and impressive. We are extremely fortunate to add a staff member who is an Olympian, NHL draft pick, first round OHL pick, and a Bobby Smith Award Winner. His personality and experience will provide great mentorship to our players.”

Troy Smith, Saginaw Spirit Head Coach

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