After eight years in the obscurity of Japanese ice hockey, all it took was an night watching television to tempt Burt Henderson out of retirement. Stuart Rayner talked to the Vipers defenceman with an unusual career path
ASK any ice hockey fan for the powerhouses of the world game and you will get pretty long odds on Japan being mentioned. As sporting backwaters go, it qualifies as little more than a puddle in the consciousness of most who love the sport. Yet it was Japan where Burt Henderson thought he had played out his career until he was watching television one evening.
After eight years on the other side of the world, the 32-year-old returned to Canada to spend more time with his soon-to-expand family and was perfectly happy until tuning in for some Christmas entertainment. Three months on, the defenceman lines up for the Vipers in tomorrow’s Elite League play-off quarter-final first leg at Belfast Giants.
“I almost came to Newcastle at the start of the season but decided to stay retired,” he recalls. “I was happy until around Christmas when (Vipers co-owner) Paul Ferone called me, said he needed some help and asked if I wanted to come. It took about two seconds to decide.
“A combination of things made me change my mind. I was watching the World Junior Championships and it got the juices going, I just missed competing. Once I retired I figured I was getting older and it was time to move on to the next stage of my life. But I’m just a hockey player, a typical Canadian guy, and I wanted to play again.”
Within a fortnight he had agreed to sign for the Newcastle club, filling the hole left by the sacking of the under-performing Petr Kratky. Despite having a Japanese mother, Henderson never saw the Land of the Rising Sun as a possible destination when starting his professional career with Bellingham Ice Hawks in 1991-92.
“I’m half-Japanese, that’s how I got over there in the first place,” he explains. “I didn’t even know hockey existed there before that but they had a really good league. It was a culture shock. I was in a small town with absolutely no English. I didn’t speak any Japanese. I get mad at my mum now for not speaking it in front of me. It would have been a lot easier! My first two years I was in Sapporo, a pretty big city up north.
“That team (Snow Brand) folded after a couple of years so I joined another in Tomakomai (OJI). It’s just a hockey town. It was good but bad because no one spoke English. It’s tough when you go to dinner and can’t read a menu. If I went back today I still wouldn’t be confident with the language. It’s a real tough language to learn. I can read it, I can write it, but it’s tough.”
There was one thing he was delighted to do without, the cause of his early retirement – the constant travelling. Henderson has joined one of the Elite League’s most isolated clubs but compared to the Asian League – encompassing China, Korea and Japan – Newcastle is a piece of cake.
“You’re gone for a day at most,” he reflects. “In Japan you’d be gone four or five at a time. This is easy. I had been in Japan eight years so it was a long grind. My body was just getting really, really tired because the travel was really, really tough.
“With my back (he has had an injury ‘on and off’ for two years) you asked if it was really worth it. I had a little girl and another baby on the way so I decided it was time to spend time with my family back home.”
Before arriving Henderson knew as little about the British game as he once had about the Japanese. Fortunately, the Vipers had former player-turned-director Ferone pushing their case.
“I didn’t really follow European hockey,” he says. “I grew up in the same area as Paul Ferone playing against each other. I talked to him when I was in Japan and he said if I wanted to have a good time, meet some good people and play some hockey, I should think about coming over.
“The opportunity came in the summer but the circumstances weren’t right. I didn’t want to come unless I knew 100% I wanted to keep playing. My wife’s over here now and loves it. She had a baby boy two weeks ago and I’ve got a two-year-old girl. We’ll sit down at the end of the season and evaluate but I’d love to stay.”
The second leg against Belfast is at Newcastle Arena on Sunday, with a 5.30pm face-off.
I’m just a hockey player, a typical Canadian guy, and I wanted to play hockey again