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Asian league hit as Seibu pulls out due to global crisis

JAPAN'S Seibu Prince Rabbits have disbanded due to financial trouble, leaving the Asia Ice Hockey League (AIHL) with just six teams.

However, AIHL officials said yesterday the departure of the twice Asian champion did not mean the league was in danger of collapsing.

Seibu was unable to maintain its operations with attendances slumping amid an economic downturn which already has claimed several big-name victims in Japanese sport. Rabbits owners Prince Hotel said it had failed to find a buyer despite holding talks with more than 20 interested parties.

"I think they could have done more," Chris Wakabayashi, the team's Canadian-born coach said yesterday. "They tried to negotiate with companies to take over the whole team and that's tough to do in this climate. It seems to me there was no Plan B and I think they just wanted to get out of the sport."

Seibu's pullout leaves the AIHL without a team based in Tokyo. Three of the remaining clubs are Japanese with two from South Korea, along with the Shanghai-based China Sharks.

The decision leaves Seibu's players out of job. Wakabayashi said about 12 or 15 players on the 30-man roster have a chance of finding a place on other teams in Asia or Europe.

"It's a blow but we are positive about next season and beyond," the AIHL's Kei Matsuura said. "We plan to carry on with the six teams.

"There will be uncertainty for any business in the current economic climate but we are still hopeful of expanding the league and are trying to bring new teams in."

Seibu's annual operating costs are estimated at around US$5 million while the team attracted an average attendance of 1,000 fans per game.

"Losing one of Japan's top teams and a franchise based in Tokyo will be a major loss," AIHL chairman Iwao Nakajima said in a statement.

"The AIHL will be working on improving the structure of the league in the coming season in cooperation with 6 teams who have officially expressed their continued participation."


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