(Video courtesy: Mike Lowry)
DURHAM, N.H. – When North Iowa Bulls alumnus Kohei Sato does something, he does it fast.
When he was playing for the Bulls, he had the fastest foot speed in the NA3HL, bar none. When he finally settled into a North American Hockey League home during the 2016-17 season, he quickly landed an NCAA Division I commitment to New Hampshire.
His scoring was slower to pick up during his first two years with the Wildcats, with just four points in his first 50 games over his freshman and sophomore seasons. The start to his 2019-20 season, though, has been exactly the speed that Sato is used to.
The native of Nishitokyo, Japan finds himself atop the goal-scoring leaderboard on the UNH roster after the opening week, racking up three goals in the first weekend of the season against the Miami Redhawks. His second goal of the season opener last Friday night was downright vintage – two blocked shots on one side of the ice, followed by a pocket-picking on the other side and a sprint to the net at the other end of the rink.
“Kohei is a mature player with a lot of speed,” said New Hampshire head coach Mike Souza. “He is stronger and more confident as he starts his junior season. I think playing with the Japanese national team at the World Championship, and having some success has done a lot for his confidence and it has showed in his play here early on.”
Sato’s speed comes naturally, with a father who played professional hockey in Japan and a grandfather who was an Olympic speed skater. He showcased his own speed in 2016 at Iowa’s state high school track and field meet, competing for Mason City Newman High School in the 100- and 200-meter races in front of more than 13,700 spectators.
His appearance at the Division I-B world championships this past spring was his first breakout success on the international stage, leading Japan to a pair of wins in the tournament. He tallied two goals and two assists for the Japanese national team, after appearing in the 2015 World Junior tournament and posting just one point.
Sato was a major factor in two North Iowa national championships, posting 16 points during the team’s run to a USA Hockey junior title in 2015. The following season, he racked up 42 points during the regular season and 17 more in nine postseason games on the way to the Bulls’ most recent national title.
After posting more than two points a game to start his final junior season in 2016-17, it was time to move on for good. His new home with the Northeast Generals allowed him even more exposure – and several offers from Division I schools. In the end, the Whittemore Center’s Olympic-size rink, and UNH’s sociology program, won out.
“It is very satisfying to see Kohei enjoy success at the highest collegiate level,” said Bulls head coach Todd Sanden. “I would expect him to continue to grow as a player and contributor at UNH.”
Sato and the Wildcats return to action Friday evening at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
(Photo credit: Jessica Speechley; special thanks to UNH Sports Information for assisting with this story)