Born to Japanese-Canadian parents who were interned in British Columbia during World War II, Steve Tsujiura grew up skating the streets of Coaldale - literally.
“When I was a kid, the town made an outdoor rink, so I would get home from school put on my skates and skate down the road. We’d play on the rink and then I’d skate back home,” recalled Tsujiura. “My toes would be freezing so my mom would put me on a vent heater and bring me hot chocolate.”
As Tsujiura’s love for the game grew, he travelled to nearby Lethbridge and Taber to play competitive hockey before becoming a fixture with the Western Hockey League’s Medicine Hat Tigers in 1978.
For three consecutive seasons Tsujiura led the Tigers in points, capping his junior career with an impressive 389 points in 243 games. Along the way, he was named WHL Player of the Year (1981), Most Sportsmanlike Player (1980, 1981) and a WHL Second All-Star (1981). And in the 1981 National Hockey league draft, Tsujiura was chosen in the 10th round by the Philadelphia Flyers (205th overall).
Over the next eight seasons, Tsujiura found his stride in the American Hockey League (AHL) where he spent most of his career with the Maine Mariners. While his NHL dream may have dwindled, his hockey journey was far from over.
The Canadian love affair with the game that started with frozen toes and hot chocolate, took Tsujiura overseas where he played in leagues in Italy and Switzerland from 1989-1994.
Then, in preparation for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Japan began developing its national hockey program. As part of an effort to ice a competitive team in Nagano, the Japanese Men’s National Team extended invitations to six North Americans, including Tsujiura.
“Marching into the stadium in the opening ceremonies and seeing all the different countries was an experience I won’t forget,” said Tsujiura. “It was a very cool experience. We played in the earlier pool with countries like France, Austria, Kazakhstan and they took the winner of each side to play against Canada, U.S, Czech Republic. That’s how Olympic hockey was set-up then.”
Following the 1998 Olympics, Tsujiura retired from his playing career to step behind the bench as head coach of the Japanese National Team. Having no experience in coaching prior to taking over as bench boss, Tsujiura saw it as an opportunity to stay in the game.
“It was my first foray into coaching, which was interesting. I didn’t get a team for a whole season so I coached different events. I would be in Japan and I was also a second assistant coach for a team in Portland, Maine, which was in the AHL, so I was also home a month,” said Tsujiura. “It was probably harder on my wife, but I was kind of an absentee Dad. I would be home for three weeks, drive the kids around or look after them. I wouldn’t call it the best situation, but it was a unique situation.”
After four years traveling between the Japan and the United States, Tsujiura returned to Maine to settle with his family.
Because of hockey, Tsujiura was able to call the country from which his ancestors had immigrated home for a short while.
“My parents were born in Canada, they were born on the west coast. They were uprooted when the war broke out and got interned in interior B.C., my Mom and Dad really never talked about anything,” recalled Tsujiura. “It’s very sad because it’s a part of our history, that’s just the way it was. But they set up a good life in Alberta.”
With resilient parents, who had everything taken away from them and were forced to start a new, Tsujiura took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves throughout his hockey career. Never wavering from his Alberta roots, he credits hockey for teaching him some of the most valuable life lessons he has learned.