Kailer Yamamoto won a U18 Worlds bronze medal on home ice and knows well the pressure on the U.S. U20 team heading to the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The Americans used a shootout to defeat Canada 5-4 at Montreal’s Bell Centre last January capturing the country’s third gold medal in eight years. Heading into the 2018 tournament at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center (26 Dec. to 5 Jan.) the U.S. will look to do something they’ve never done before at the Under-20 level: win back-to-back gold medals.
“I think there’s a little bit (of pressure) just because it’s home ice and we’re coming off a huge win last year,” said Yamamoto. “But I think the guys in the locker room stay calm all the time before games (and) they just try to play their game.”
The Spokane, Washington native won a silver medal at the 2015 Under-17 tournament and scored seven goals and 13 points in seven games as the U.S. won a bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship.
Attempting to represent his country again on the international stage, Yamamoto is admittedly comfortable with the process.
“It’s definitely a process, but definitely used to it,” Yamamoto said of the recent World Junior Summer Showcase. “I went to all the national camps in the summer so I’m definitely used to it with USA Hockey.”
Following his third season with his hometown Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League where he scored a team-leading 42 goals and 99 points, the Edmonton Oilers made history selecting the pint-size forward. On Thursday he signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers.
At five feet and seven and three-quarters inches (172 cm), Yamamoto became the shortest player ever selected in the first round of an NHL Draft going 22nd overall.
J.D. Greenway, a fellow U.S. Under-20 hopeful, has only practised against Yamamoto, but understands what separates him from his peers.
“He’s a small slippery guy, when he goes down, if it’s a 1-on-1, I feel confident I can take him, but there’s one little thing he can do and he’s by me,” Greenway said laughing. “He’s a fast kid, has good mitts and very slippery.
“He can turn on a dime and continue going the other way too.”
Despite the naysayers, the 18-year-old is confident he can have success at the next level.
“Size doesn’t matter, it’s what’s in your heart, it’s whether you have no fear, if you have the confidence,” he said. “I think I have no fear, a lot of confidence to that really helps.”
It also helps that he has fellow Spokane native Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning to lean on for advice. In fact, if not for Johnson’s mother, Yamamoto may not be playing hockey at all these days.
It was Johnson’s mother, Debbie, who first taught Yamamoto and his brother Keanu how to skate.
Though there’s a nine-year age gap between Yamamoto and Johnson, the Oilers prospect and Lightning forward are both still close today.
“He’s been a huge role model, ever since I was a little kid, (I’ve) taken moves from his book,” Yamamoto said. “I work out with him in the summer, seeing how hard he works in the summers, how hard he works on the ice – it’s unbelievable and I know I need to work that hard to get to the next level.”
Now that Yamamoto is that much closer of seeing his dream of playing in the NHL come true, he’s paying closer attention to advice Johnson passes along.
“I try to take it in ‘cause I know that’s going to make me become the best hockey player I can become,” said Yamamoto.
What’s Johnson’s biggest advice?
“Make sure I’m working hard every single time in the weight room or on the ice,” Yamamoto said. “Making sure no one is out-working me and making sure that my size isn’t being in the way. Making sure people who don’t believe in me, I block them out. I believe in myself so always believe in yourself and don’t believe what anyone says.”
His ties to the Johnson family isn’t the only interesting fact about Yamamoto, he also had an interesting upbringing as his paternal grandfather is Japanese and his maternal grandmother is Native Hawaiian.
“They had a lot of impact (on me),” said Yamamoto. “I was always over at my grandma and grandpas, they were great people. Sadly, they passed away when I was a bit younger so I never really got to know them as I got older, but growing up, it was awesome hanging out with them.
“Always played Nintendo 64 at their house. I really cherished the moments I had with my grandparents.”
Last month Yamamoto attended his first pro camp – the Oilers development camp – in Jasper, Alberta. The experience provided Yamamoto with insight on where he needs to improve moving forward.
“It was awesome, lot of great coaches there, lot of great players. I just tried to tuck my head in and open my ears and take it all in,” he said. “I learned a lot about their systems, how they play and how hard you need to work – what it takes to become an NHL hockey player.”
Yamamoto is likely headed for a fourth season with his hometown Chiefs, and is hoping for an opportunity to represent his country at the World Juniors. He’ll also be working on being harder to play against this coming season.
“I think getting more physically strong,” said Yamamoto. “I definitely need to add that weight, get a little bit stronger so I’m able to get to that next level.”