Hockey knight in Asia

MURRAY GREIG -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:58 PM ET

Like a wandering knight-errant of old, former Edmonton Oiler and 10-year NHL veteran Shjon Podein is roaming far from home in search of not-so-chivalrous adventure.

Based in the picturesque Japanese city of Nikko, he sallies forth on weekly crusades to test his mettle against Vikings, Dragons and Lions - not to mention the usual challenges of a new culture and new language.

Welcome to the Asia Hockey League, where Podein, who scored exactly 100 goals in 699 NHL games with the Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, is getting a first-hand look at the planet's fastest-growing hockey market as player-coach of the Nikko Kobe Ice Bucks.

With four teams in Japan, three in China and two in South Korea, the two-year-old AHL is experiencing some growing pains, but that's half the fun, according to Podein.

His team currently sits in sixth place with a record of 14-14-2 - lowest of the four Japanese teams. The powerhouse Kokkudo Lions, defending AHL champion Nippon Paper Cranes and Hokkaido-based Oji Eagles are the class of the circuit.

REMINDER

A week before Christmas, the Ice Bucks were in Harbin, China, to take on the hometown Dragons. Hanging from the rafters were English-challenged banners proclaiming "Harbin Love Ice Hokey!" - a not-so-subtle reminder that credibility might still be a bit of a problem. But on the upside, there are no squabbles over salary caps or revenue sharing - just a genuine affinity for binq-cho, something most folks in the People's Republic have seen only in 30-second clips on TV sports highlight shows.

"The road trips to China are awesome," Podein said in an e-mail interview with the Sun last week. "Not only do we get to climb the Great Wall and eat tons of terrific Chinese food, but it's great to see how the fans are embracing the game.

''The crowds are still a little sparse up north (Harbin and Qiqihar), but in Beijing they've got a team called the Nordic Vikings that's made up mostly of Swedish players.

"The Beijing fans are really energetic and boisterous. They cheer as loudly for penalties against the opposition as they do for goals for the home team. All three Chinese teams have some young Swedish players, and I think they'll really help take hockey in China to the next level."

Competing against Swedes is nothing new for the globe-trotting Podein, who suited up for Vaxjo in the Swedish Elite League during the 2004-05 season.

"The lockout was coming, and while I didn't officially file retirement papers with the NHL, I was anxious to see other parts of the world," said the University of Minnesota grad, who's now 38.

"Sweden was fun for me and my family, but I always wanted to get to the Far East and experience life here. Not just the hockey, but everything else to do with the culture. My daughter Anna doesn't start school until next fall, so it was easy to just pick up and move.

''The biggest adjustment, obviously, has been the language. Not nearly as many people in Asia speak English as in other parts of the world, but we're adjusting. The bowing, the food and having to take your shoes off everywhere has been interesting, too. But it's been a blast learning all of this stuff."

As for the coaching, Podein said he's been pleasantly surprised by the attitude of his young charges.

They respect his seniority - and the fact he's one of only two AHL players with a Stanley Cup ring, won with the Avs in 2001.

"Being the old guy definitely has its benefits," he said. "Derek Plante, who won the Cup with Dallas, is also over here, but I've still got a few years on him.

"Being the oldest player in the league hasn't been a drawback at all. The players are so eager to learn, and in Asian culture there's so much respect for older people that's it's been very positive ... and a lot of fun."

Podein is quick to credit his time with the Oilers as being the most important factor in shaping his career.

"I was lucky enough to have Craig MacTavish as my roommate in my first year (1992-93), and without the things I learned from him, I wouldn't have had anything close to the career I had," he said.

"I was young, and Craig definitely helped me through a lot of stuff that I didn't know how to handle at that age.

"The biggest thing I learned in Edmonton is that young players need help sometimes and a kick in the butt other times. The most important thing is to know when to do which. MacT and the Oilers organization really ingrained those lessons in me, and I still use them today. I loved Edmonton. It was the best place I could've landed coming out of college."

OPTIONS

As for what his future holds, Podein is keeping his options open. "My contract with the Ice Bucks expires in March, and after the season we'll head back to Minnesota to get little Anna enrolled in school.

"The coaching part has been better that I expected, so that might be something I'll look at down the road. Hockey has a real future here in Asia, and it would be great to see this league grow. There's talk of maybe having a team in North Korea next season.

"My time here has been a wonderful experience, and hopefully I've been able to pass some things along to my teammates. I certainly had to adjust my own game to adapt to the bigger rinks over here, but it's made me a smarter player and a better coach.

''There are some very good skaters in this league, guys with a lot of energy. The biggest difference from North America is that they're just not as big and they don't read the game as well as guys back home."

And speaking of the guys back home, Podein had a final thought on the Oilers.

"I can't imagine how the boys must be flying in the new NHL," he said. "They were fast before, but now they must be just awesome. I can't wait to watch them in the playoffs."


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