UNH hockey notebook: Japanese freshman forward Kohei Sato’s getting up to speed; Maine preview

  • UNH freshman Kohei Sato takes control of the puck during last Friday’s loss against Boston University in Durham. The Japan native has played 15 games. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/19/2018 12:42:28 AM

DURHAM – If you didn’t catch that blur sprinting up and down the ice for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team last weekend, his name is Kohei Sato

The 21-year-old freshman forward brings an element of speed to the lineup that coach Dick Umile hasn’t seen since Steve Moses was cutting around the big sheet at the Whittemore Center from 2008 to 2012.

“He’s as fast as we’ve seen,” Umile said on Thursday. “We’ve had a couple fast guys here; Moses, Johnny Rogers (1997-01). This kid here is unreal fast.”

It’s not hard to figure out where Sato’s quick and efficient stride came from. His grandfather was an Olympic speedskater for Japan, and his father played pro hockey there as well.

Sato competed in speedskating and hockey growing up. While the style of stride is very different between the two sports, Sato has no doubt that his background in speedskating has positively influenced his play with a stick in hand.

“I feel like I took both sides and put them together,” he said. “I’m getting more confident out there to make plays.”

The coach agrees.

“He gets rushes and semi-breakaways with his speed,” Umile said. “He can go by people.”

Sato spent the last three seasons playing junior hockey in the U.S. He played two seasons with the North Iowa Bulls (Tier III) and was called up to the NAHL’s Northeast Generals (Tier II) last season. He recorded 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 48 games with the Generals.

Sato left his home of Nishitokyo, Japan, about nine years ago to play in North America. He spent five seasons in Canada as a teenager before coming to the states. 

“Coming from Japan, I didn’t really have much expectation,” Sato said. “I came here knowing nothing about college hockey or junior hockey.”

Sato earned an invite to the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament last season, where his play caught the attention of NCAA recruiters. He said there were a couple of other schools that reached out, but UNH felt like the right fit.

Sato logged his 15th game of the season on Sunday at Boston College, a 5-2 loss for UNH. The winger made his debut Oct. 21 against Colorado College. 

Since then, Sato has stuck to the left wing while most often skating alongside junior centerman Frankie Cefalu. Freshman Charlie Kelleher has occupied the right wing on that line for the last four games. 

Sato has one assist and no goals this year. He said it took a couple games to get comfortable against D-I competition. 

“Coming in, I played junior hockey for three years and it was a lot different speed-wise,” Sato said. “I feel like the physicality is there as well. In junior hockey, you’re playing teenagers. Now, I’m playing against men.”

“I think he’s figuring it out at this level,” Umile said. “He’s playing at a much higher level than he’s used to playing, but (with) his speed and his strength, he’s doing fine.”

While Sato has obviously noticed the difference on the ice, he’ll get his first look at the environment of a longtime college rivalry when the Wildcats (9-11-2, 4-7-1 Hockey East) head to Orono to face Maine (12-9-2, 6-6-1) for a pair of games this weekend.

“I’m excited,” Sato said with a smile. “We’re ready. The attitude is there. I think we’re ready for it and we’re excited to get up there and play.”

Maine memories

Trips to Maine sometimes include a bizarre event, from the odd to the ugly.

“Something crazy always happens,” Umile said.

Such things have been as minor as a towel getting tangled in a Zamboni. Other instances have been more serious. 

Mike Ayers is remembered in Durham as the stalwart puck-stopper who helped the Wildcats reach back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2002 and 2003. But Umile will never forget the night in Orono in ’02 when Ayers suffered a severed tendon in his glove-side wrist from a teammate’s skate. It was a bloody mess, but Ayers, now an assistant coach under Jerry York at BC, was back on the ice for Game 2 of the weekend series the following night. With a brace on beneath his glove, Ayers made 33 saves in a 2-2 tie.

“The next game was on NESN and it showed him making a save and his facial expression was (strained),” Umile reflected. “It was unbelievable.”

Certain instances aside, the 28th-year coach, who will retire at the end of this season, has enjoyed being a part of the UNH-Maine rivalry. 

“It’s nuts, it’s a great place to play, a fun place to play, but it’s intense,” Umile said. “The students aren’t there (winter break), so it’s going to affect things a little bit. But there’s nothing like playing there. I told (our young players) that it’s not just the students. They’ve got grown adults, grandparents that act like crazy people. They’re great fans.”

The Wildcats will have their hands full with Maine’s freshman goaltender Jeremy Swayman, a Boston Bruins prospect. Swayman has swiftly taken over the starting role in Orono and has a league-leading .927 save percentage.

“Their goaltender is on a roll,” Umile said. “This Swayman kid has made the difference.”

Umile could be making his final visit to Alfond Arena this weekend, unless the Wildcats draw the Black Bears for a first-round series in the Hockey East tournament. That’d be the case if the season ended today. The top five teams all receive byes and the bottom six determine who will advance to the quarterfinals via a best-of-three series. 

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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