HANOVER, Mass. – Kohei Sato’s speed made him a dynamic part of the North Iowa Bulls team on the ice, and a legend among Bulls fans during his two-plus years in Mason City. The University of New Hampshire Wildcats are hoping he’ll have the same impact on their team, starting next year. Sato announced his commitment to UNH hockey on Tuesday, joining a storied program that includes more than 40 alumni with National Hockey League experience.
He fielded three Division I offers, but his most recognizable asset as a player is one that will serve him well at UNH – the Wildcats’ Whittemore Center features an Olympic sheet of ice, which is 15 feet wider than a typical NHL-sized rink.
“I think that’s where I can use my skill to my maximum level,” said Sato. “That was a big factor. That was the right fit.”
The former Bulls forward began playing hockey at the age of 3 in Nishitokyo, Japan, with a father who played professional hockey in Japan and a grandfather who was an Olympic speed-skater in the 1970s. His journey led him to Canada to play prep-school hockey starting at the age of 12, and to join the North Iowa roster before the 2014-15 season. Head coach Todd Sanden attended one of Sato’s NAHL camps and spotted the young speedster.
“I was nervous coming to the United States,” said Sato. “I was intimidated by the skill players, and it’s good hockey. It’s Tier III, so it’s not the best, but this team had special talent. My impression of the team was, ‘wow’ – I wanted to win a championship.”
Sanden quickly realized what he had, and Sato’s speed became his calling-card with the Bulls, leading to 92 points in 90 games in a North Iowa uniform, including 48 goals. He credits that speed to his family history on the ice.
“I couldn’t be any more honored to get that from [my grandfather], and to expose it in hockey,” said Sato. “My dad used to stand right by me and teach me how to skate and how to stride. Growing up, I did that almost every day.”
That speed also led to some of the most exciting moments in Bulls history – Sato scored nine game-winning goals in North Iowa’s run to a 2015-16 NA3HL Silver Cup national championship, including a team-high seven in the regular season. His final game-winner for North Iowa was a sweep up the right-wing boards in the Silver Cup semifinals against the Twin City Steel, burning the Twin City defense on a slow line-change. He opened the scoring the following day in the Bulls’ Cup-clinching 4-1 win over the Metro Jets with – you guessed it – another breakaway.
“The North Iowa Bulls couldn’t be prouder of Kohei and his accomplishments,” said Sanden. “We appreciate his commitment to our program for his development. Kohei is an extremely dynamic player. This is a big deal.”
Sato quickly became familiar with the big stage and the big crowds, representing his native Japan at the 2015 World Junior Division I-B tournament in Hungary. The biggest crowd of his career saw him run at the 2016 state high school track and field championships in Des Moines, Iowa. Sato competed for Mason City’s Newman Catholic High School, running in in the state 100- and 200-meter dash races as a senior. A meet-record crowd of more than 13,700 fans jammed into Des Moines’s Drake Stadium on the opening day of last year’s meet, witnessing both of Sato’s races at the state meet. He only joined the team after some convincing from his teammates that they needed his speed in a relay race or two.
Sato’s development as a junior hockey player came with the North Iowa Bulls, but his greatest exposure to Division I scouts came with the Northeast Generals, in his second turn in the North American Hockey League. His first turn with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights at the start of the 2015-16 campaign yielded two goals, but lasted just three games.
“I liked the team and my teammates, but it just wasn’t the right fit with the coach,” said Sato. “My playing style wasn’t his thing, so that’s how I got back with the Bulls and decided I’d just win another championship with them.”
This year as a 1996-born player, Sato decided it was time to make his move in his final season of junior hockey. He wrapped up his Tier III career with 15 points in seven games with the Bulls, and made an immediate impact with the Northeast Generals. His Generals debut on Oct. 14 included an early go-ahead goal against the New Jersey Titans, the first of his 36 points on the team. That total ranked second on the Northeast roster, despite playing just 48 games this year.
This year was one of change for the former Bulls star, in several ways. In joining the Northeast Generals, Sato went from a team that won 41 games and led the NA3HL with more than 900 fans a game at home to one that finished at the bottom of the NAHL standings and attendance chart. That change, though, is one he says needed to happen.
“I wanted to prove to everyone that I could play [in the NAHL] and to actually stay in the league this time,” said Sato. “Being right there in Boston, there is Hockey East with big schools, and there are good Division III schools that are always at our games. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go there, was the exposure for quality scouts to play either Division III [hockey] or Division I.”
Sato becomes the second North Iowa alumnus to pick a Hockey East school this year. Former North Iowa and Amarillo Bull Jeff Solow committed to Merrimack College in late January, and began playing for the Warriors immediately after making his commitment.
“Jeff was one of my good friends when he was with the North Iowa Bulls,” said Sato. “When I saw he went to Merrimack, I was excited for him, and I went to see one of his games while I was playing for Northeast. When I decided to go to New Hampshire, I was excited to play against Jeff and beat Merrimack.”
North Iowa can now boast of six alumni to reach the Division I level in as many years, including three in the last year. Dominik Florian was the second-highest scorer this year for American International College as a freshman, and Solow appeared in three games for Merrimack.
The North Iowa Bulls wish Kohei all the success in his academic and hockey pursuits at UNH.