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The Rabbits call it quits; Japanese hockey team closes due to economy

TOKYO - The Seibu Prince Rabbits, a Japanese ice hockey team with a 37-year history, is the latest casualty of Japan's economic crises.

The Rabbits were disbanded Tuesday after the club's parent company, Prince Hotels Inc., was unable to find a new owner.

Since announcing its withdrawal from the sport in December, the Seibu group held talks with more than 20 companies seeking a buyer for the team but found no takers.

"I think they could have done more," Chris Wakabayashi, the team's Canadian-born coach said Wednesday. "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."

Annual costs of running the team were estimated at US$5.1 million, while the average attendance for games was just 1,000.

The decision leaves Seibu's players out of a 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.

The Rabbits roster includes Richard Rochefort of North Bay, Ont., and Joel Prpic of Sudbury, Ont.

Seibu was a hockey powerhouse in Japan. The team won the Asia League championship twice and captured the national championship 11 times.

The Asia League will be reduced to six teams and Wakabayashi said it will be tough going for a while.

"There will be major cuts in expenses with the economy going the way it is," Wakabayashi said. "Hopefully, the league can hold its ground but it's going to be tough."

In Japan, sports teams are more like promotional vehicles for major companies as opposed to independent profit-making entities.

Players and coaches are company employees and their fate is directly linked to the financial health of the company.

Japan, which has relied on exports to drive growth, has been pummelled by a global slowdown that has sapped foreign sales of its cars and other products. A stronger yen has exacerbated the pain by eroding exporters' earnings abroad.

The world's second-largest economy now finds itself in its deepest recession since the Second World War.

Hockey teams aren't the only ones effected.

Japanese electronics maker NEC Corp. is considering disbanding the NEC Blue Rockets of the men's Premier Volleyball League at the end of this season. Automaker Honda pulled out of Formula One racing in December while Subaru and Suzuki quit the World Rally Championship.

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