By: Joel Norman
Sota Isogai is an anomaly.
Most junior hockey players spend the fall through the spring in a town they likely don’t know hoping to earn a scholarship to play at the school of their dreams.
Sota Isogai is not like most junior hockey players.
“After this season I want to be a professional hockey player,” Isogai said. “The best way for me to improve is to begin professionally in Japan and hope to move up from there.”
This is Isogai’s third straight season playing in the North American 3 Hockey League and his final that he can play junior hockey now that he is 21.
In some ways it is peculiar that Isogai will not continue his journey in the United States. The Nagano, Japan, native is in the midst of his finest season with 26 goals and 42 assists in his first 37 games with the Toros. Isogai was called up to play for the North Iowa Bulls in late November and spent four weeks with them in the North American Hockey League.
That success is nothing new, it’s just part of his steady improvement. Isogai spent the last two years with the Bulls in the NA3HL before they made the jump to the NAHL. He scored 17 goals and added 14 assists in 39 games last season before tallying three goals and four assists in the postseason en route to a Fraser Cup title. In 2019-20 Isogai scored 22 goals and added 16 assists in 43 games, but did not get a chance to add to those numbers in the postseason because it was wiped out by COVID-19.
Why wouldn’t someone who accumulates points at will not want to pursue a college career and see where it takes him professionally?
A closer look reveals Isogai’s rationale.
Since he was 15 Isogai has spent each hockey season away from Japan. First, Russia, from 2016-18. Then, Austria, for a long 59-game season with two different teams in 2018-19. Now, the United States, since joining the Bulls in 2019. His time away from home has taught him plenty about hockey.
“In Mason City we have learned that everyone on the team can work together to win,” Isogai said. “Hockey cannot be won alone. I learned that communication is more important that anything else.”
Isogai’s willingness to be a team player has been pivotal in his line’s dominance this season. He has skated on the same line as Carter Newpower and has been a big help in Newpower being tied for the NA3HL lead in points entering the last weekend of the regular season.
Isogai and Newpower have primarily been centered by two different players, Jack Campion and Derek Humphreys. Campion was on the line from the beginning of the season until the end of 2021, when he was called up to the North Iowa Bulls in the NAHL. Campion is still third on the Toros with 56 points, despite not playing for them since Dec. 22. Derek Humphreys was acquired in January to fill Campion’s role as the top-center. All he has done is average over a point a game on the top line by posting 17 points through his first 14 games in the River City.
A big part of why Humphreys has adjusted well to the Toros is because of Isogai’s efforts on the ice, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Toros head coach Nick Bruneteau.
“Sota’s selflessness has impressed me,” Bruneteau said. “Whether it’s in a game or in practice he makes everyone around him better. That’s one of the ways that he has been a leader this season, through his actions.”
The ability to make everyone on the team better while also excelling from having talent around him has endeared Isogai to his teammates. It doesn’t hurt that his infectious personality has also won over the locker room.
“His energy always lights up the room,” Newpower said. “He’s always in a good mood and that translates onto the ice as well. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. He’ll make you feel like a part of the team.”
Isogai has spent the bulk of the 2021-22 season smiling and who can blame him? He’s a defending Fraser Cup Champion averaging almost two points a game. His comfort in his adopted home has led to improved play on the ice but also some moments that fans weren’t used to seeing from Isogai in previous seasons.
On Oct. 23 Isogai scored 5:30 into the Toros’ eventual 10-1 victory over the Minnesota Loons. It was his fourth goal in the last two days and the first step of recording another type of hat trick: the Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Isogai picked up an assist on Campion’s goal midway through the first period and then dropped the gloves late in the third period to complete the hat trick named after one of the game’s finest players.
The 20 penalty minutes that Isogai earned for his fisticuffs were halfway to the total number of penalty minutes that he had earned in the previous two seasons combined. Flash forward four months later and Isogai leads the Toros with 87 penalty minutes with two regular season games remaining. It may be the last time he wracks up this much time in the box for a while.
“This season has been a good experience for me by being a little more aggressive,” Isogai said. “Fighting is looked down on a little bit more in Japan.”
The Toros wrapped up February with a 10-1 win over the New Ulm Steel last Saturday and the game was the perfect example of what Isogai has brought to the Toros this season. He picked up four assists, including an impressive between-the-legs pass on Newpower’s second goal of the night. He also spent 10 minutes in the penalty box late in the game but made a point to tug at his specialty red, white and blue jersey while in the sinbin. Asked for explanation for that after the game for what he was saying while doing that, Isogai explained that he was saying, “USA, USA, USA!”
Isogai made fans and teammates alike cheer and laugh in the same game. He’s been doing it all year long.
With the regular season coming to a close this weekend, the remainder of Isogai’s time in Mason City is dwindling. The season could end next weekend with a first-round exit or it could come to a conclusion with a second consecutive Fraser Cup Championship.
Regardless of when the book closes on his junior-hockey career and he returns to the Land of the Rising Sun, Isogai will look back on this chapter of his life with a smile. Perhaps Bulls and Toros fans will as well.