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Shin Larsson: From Olympic Hero to Sharks Scout

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Sharks scouts Shin Larsson & Karel Masopust (courtesy: Larsson)

It’s a book about a boy who became a gnome that led scout Shin Larsson to the San Jose Sharks.

Growing up in Tokyo, Larsson’s mother was fascinated by Swedish novella The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. This fascination led her to study in Sweden, where she met Shin’s father.

Shin Larsson is now entering his 13th year as San Jose Sharks scout and fourth as Supervisor of European Scouting. In this role, he’s perhaps best known for helping to identify and recruit key European free agents Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, Marcus Sorensen, Joel Kellman, and Fredrik Handemark, to name a handful.

But as his unlikely origin story suggests — would Shin Larsson have fallen in love with hockey if he had grown up in Japan instead of Sweden? — Larsson is a lot more than just a San Jose Sharks scout.

He’s an Olympic hero. He was the general manager of a hockey team in China. He’s probably the first NHL scout of Asian heritage.

San Jose Hockey Now caught up with Larsson to trace a career arc that’s taken him through Leskands, Quebec, Tokyo, Nagano, France, Manchester, Tomakomai, Beijing, Atlanta, and finally, San Jose.

We also touched on the state of hockey in Japan, 22 years after Nagano, and a lesser-known Sharks prospect who’s really impressed him this season.

Sheng Peng: You were part of the so-called “Seven Samurai” — seven foreign players of Japanese descent who were recruited by Japan to raise the national team’s competitiveness before the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics — can you tell me what went into your decision to represent Japan?

Shin Larsson: I was about 20 years old. They called me from the Japanese hockey federation. This was in ’94. They said they’re going to make a big push for the Olympics in ’98, both on the club team level and with the national team. That was intriguing, a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity.

I spent my whole youth growing up in Sweden. I started playing hockey in Leksands, took all the steps to the top team here. Played a few games in the SHL.

But the team here in Leksands was very good at the time. At the ’94 Olympics, I think they had like seven guys on different Olympic teams.

It was hard for a young guy like myself to make [Team Sweden]. So when this opportunity came, I just thought it was a great chance for me to play professionally and explore my roots in Japan.

SP: You led Japan in scoring in those Olympics and scored arguably the most important goal in Japanese hockey history: Your shootout winner against Austria resulted in Japan’s first Olympic hockey victory since 1976. Did that elevate interest in hockey in Japan, were you a bit of a celebrity?

SL: The years leading up to the Olympics, the interest in hockey grew quite a bit. It peaked during the Olympics.

Our goal was to win at least one game, not finish last. As the host country, you get a free spot in the tournament, and we wanted to prove we belonged.

But hockey is still such a minor sport in Japan. The general public, they probably knew about the win. It was quite a big upset. But people forgot pretty quickly and moved on to baseball and sumo and soccer after that.

SP: Speaking of a brush with celebrity, you have a pretty good story that starts with your mother and sister making onigiri and inari sushi for the national team when the World Championships were held in Sweden in 2002…

SL: The Czech team was staying at the same hotel. Jaromir Jagr, we found out he loved sushi. He came and ate the rest of the sushi, the leftovers. (laughs)

SP: We’ve talked about hockey’s place in Japan, and that standing hasn’t much improved since 1998, despite the national team’s investment in bringing in players of your caliber and the NHL hosting games in Japan at that time. Looking back, what could’ve been done differently to keep hockey growing in Japan?

SL: It’s a number of things.

First of all, they would have to increase the amount of ice arenas so more kids could start playing. That was one of the problems [in Japan].

Next, the way the [Japanese] league was set up, back then in the ’90s, there were a lot of rich Japanese companies that basically put a lot of money into different sports. That’s how the team survived. So there wasn’t a real urgency that they had to come up with ways to get more fans, to [learn to] survive on their own.

They were very dependent on these companies that were sponsoring the teams, which was great at the time, but in the long run, it hurt hockey. Because you need interest from the fans for sports to survive.

Also, like a lot of countries, where they play hockey but it hasn’t grown as much as you would’ve maybe hoped, there’s been a lack of a [native] superstar, somebody for the kids to look up to.

The grassroots level has to be more broad and bigger, for sure. That would’ve made a difference.

SP: That of course is relevant to China, where a similar formula is being followed: Foreign players are being brought in to make Team China competitive for the 2022 Olympics, the NHL has been hosting games there.

Speaking of China, after the end of your playing career in 2005, you became the general manager of the Nordic Vikings, a Beijing-based team in Asia League Ice Hockey. What are your memories of that?

SL: I was called up by a group of investors from Sweden, really interested in hockey. They tried at one point to buy an NHL team, but it didn’t work out. So they got the idea of starting up a hockey team in China.

They asked me to help them put together a team. They gave me two weeks to put a team together with mixed nationalities: It was supposed to be, I think,15 Scandinavian players, preferably from all the countries, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.

But I didn’t live in Beijing myself. I stayed back in Sweden and traveled over four times.

We played in different arenas. One arena was huge, it held around 18,000. But since hockey was brand-new, it was really hard to fill up. We gave freebies for one game, managed to get 8,000 people in there. It was pretty good for a start. (laughs)

SP: After a season as Nordic’s GM, you got your first NHL job in 2006 as a European scout for the Atlanta Thrashers. You’re probably the first NHL scout of Asian heritage. Is that something of significance to you?

SL: Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it in that sense. I don’t know if I’m the first Asian-heritage scout. There’s a few of us working now as scouts.

SP: In your career, did you ever have to deal with prejudice because of your appearance, your heritage?

SL: I never had to deal with that. I can’t re-collect one time since starting as a scout.

As a player, it happened many, many times. It was every other game that you had to deal with that stuff, growing up in Sweden to playing overseas as well. It was bad, but you were kind of used to it. I wasn’t bothered about it. But looking back, it makes you upset.

Thankfully, the society and the game has changed a lot since then. Hopefully, younger kids don’t have to deal with it as much anymore.

SP: You joined the Sharks in 2008: What’s the biggest change in scouting over the last decade or so?

SL: There are more scouts now. It’s very rare to find a player that you’re the only one who has seen them play. Nowadays, there are less secrets, it’s just different opinions about the same player.

When I started, you could travel to places in Russia where nobody had ever been to see players. Same thing in Sweden. You could go up north to find some talent and you were the only one to see them play. That just doesn’t happen anymore.

More teams, more scouts, just more coverage overall.

SP: Is there a player in your career that’s an example of that, someone nobody else saw that only you guys saw?

SL: The closest was Rudolfs Balcers. He was a Latvian playing in Norway. Even him, he was on the Latvian national team, so scouts and teams saw him play there. But I don’t think there were a lot of scouts who went into Norway and saw him play there. Today, there would be more scouts there.

SP: Finally, the Sharks have a ton of prospects playing in Europe right now. Anybody in particular who’s turning heads a bit?

SL: If I’m going to mention one name, I have to say Santeri Hatakka. He’s had a great start to the year. We’re very happy with his progress and excited to see him play in the World Juniors.

He’s matured and grown stronger. He’s playing a more pro-like game now, that’s his biggest improvement. Very smart puck management, very smart defensively. He’s playing with more edge to him now after one year in the top league.

You could see he’s stepped it up. It’s very intriguing, to see his improvement.

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