Photo credit: Mark Kuhlmann (North Dakota)
For Jordan Kawaguchi, who grew up in Abbotsford, B.C., it was a dream come true for him when signed on to play with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCHL for the 2013-14 season.
The team was coming off two strong years after relocating from Quesnel to Chilliwack in 2011 and bringing BCHL hockey back to the town, but most importantly, it was just a 20-minute drive from his family home. With divisional road games within driving distance in Langley, Surrey and Coquitlam, his family and friends were able to come out and watch him play on an almost nightly basis.
Playing close to home would make most young hockey players happy, but for Kawaguchi, it had extra meaning because of his close relationship with his family.
“They’re all a huge part of where I am today,” he said. “They supported me so much throughout my younger years and it’s only grown. I wouldn’t be here without them. To see me play and have fun and do what I do, that’s all they ever wanted.”
One member of Kawaguchi’s family who had an especially big impact on him was his grandfather Mas. According to Jordan, his grandfather always helped out the family whenever he or his three younger brothers needed anything, especially when it came to hockey. Whether it was a ride to practice or a game, Mas was always there to lend a hand.
Sadly, Mas passed away in 2019, while Jordan was in his sophomore season at the University of North Dakota (UND). Despite the sadness of losing someone so close, Kawaguchi is able to reflect and appreciate the time he got to spend with his grandfather.
“He was one of those guys that went about his things and did what he had to do,” he said. “I learned all about his life story and heard everything he had to overcome, whether it was racial stuff or making enough money to bring his family over. He was a family man first. Just hearing everything he went through in his life, it pushes me every day to be better. It’s tough to talk about someone that helped you so much. You can’t say enough good things about a person like that. I’m super fortunate that I got to have him in my life.”
Kawaguchi ended up spending four years with Chiefs from 2013 to 2017, captaining the team for his final two years and leading them in scoring those two years as well. Before moving on, he led the Chiefs to two straight Fred Page Cup Final appearances in 2016 and 2017.
He grew noticeably as a player over those four years, but according to people in the Chiefs organization, his level of growth off the ice was just as impressive.
Barry Douglas is the Chiefs Vice President and has been with this version of the team since they moved to Chilliwack in 2011. He developed a close relationship with Kawaguchi during his tenure with the team that lasts until this day.
“It’s been a great maturation process for Jordan,” said Douglas. “He came in as a teenager and I watched him grow both on and off the ice. He spent four years here in Chilliwack and I got to know his family as well.”
“There are individuals that talk at you and there are those that talk with you and Jordan is one of the latter. He listens and asks questions when he talks to people. He’s genuinely a sincere person. There were many times where I would watch him talk to a fan or a volunteer and he would always be really engaged with them.”
After his successful stint in Chilliwack, it was no surprise that he was recruited by a high-end NCAA program in North Dakota.
Kawaguchi put up solid numbers his first two seasons there, but really took off last year when he broke out for 45 points in 33 games and was named one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
“His attitude is outstanding and his work ethic is impeccable,” said North Dakota head coach Brad Berry. “He’s someone you just love to be around and I think guys gravitate to him, follow him and try to mimic what he does. As a coach, that’s what you want – a guy that can lead your group, not just with what he says, but what he does.”
Given his outstanding season last year, it was widely expected that the 5-foot-9, 188-pound Kawaguchi would sign a pro contract, likely with an NHL team, and forego his final year of college eligibility. That didn’t happen though as he decided to come back for one more year and another chance at a national championship.
“The guys that are here at school with me, no one left early from our team and signed somewhere,” said Kawaguchi. “Everyone had a commitment to come back and finish what we started last year.”
Kawaguchi has picked up where he left off after his Hobey finalist season. He has 21 points in 18 games so far in 2020-21 and was named team captain at the start of the year. Although he knows the end of his time at North Dakota is coming, he isn’t letting that distract him from his team goals.
“In the back of my head, I know it’s coming,” he said. “I’m just taking it game-by-game, day-by-day here and enjoying my last few months as a college hockey player. I’m excited for the future, but I know we have a job at hand.”
No matter how the year ends, Kawaguchi is sure to have plenty of suitors bidding for his services. When that time comes, just like in junior and just like in college, his coach knows he will be an asset for whichever team that takes him.
“He’s going to have a bright future with whoever ends up signing him at the end of the year,” said Berry. “Those are the players you love to have. Not only are they high-end, elite players on the ice, but they make everybody else around them better. When he’s in the locker room, everybody else around him rises to that level and that’s what you want on a successful team. That’s how you build culture within your locker room.”