In an interview done prior to the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, Japanese defenceman Yoko Kondo was asked what she envisioned for her country’s future in women’s ice hockey.
“I hope that Japan can qualify for the 2014 Olympics,” said Kondo. “I think by then we will be strong enough to be at the Olympics, even though we might finish in the lower half in the standings. I think it is important that we try to be a step higher by Sochi 2014 than we are now and continue to improve.”
16 years later, Kondo is looking forward to celebrating her 35th birthday in Sochi as her team prepares to travel to Russia to participate in the women’s hockey tournament, the first time Japan will take to Olympic ice since the inaugural event in Nagano.
“At the Nagano Olympic, it just began the history of the women's national team, I did not feel at the time that I was an athlete,” said Kondo. “Since then the team mindset has changed and the players are more conscious of themselves and their roles as Olympians in Sochi."
Japan qualified for Sochi 2014 after winning a qualification tournament in Poprad, Slovakia, that also included Vancouver 2010 participant Slovakia as well as Norway and Denmark. 19 players from that team will be in the Sochi team.
For Japan to reach Sochi, the team recognized that a change was needed in the team’s attitude towards competition. With the amount of sacrifice that the players put in to play in what is a comparatively obscure sport in Japan compared to Europe or North America, it is easy for a team’s mentality to be affected when the wins aren’t coming in. For former Team Canada Olympian and current Japan assistant coach Carla MacLeod, a fundamental shift occurred in the team’s attitude during the Poprad tournament.
“Two games stand out in my mind, both from the qualifier. The first was against Norway, we were down 3-0, not exactly how you’d draw up your first qualifying game,” she said. “But it was one of those moments where you thought that we were doing things right and we just had to keep going, and we ended up winning 4-3. Then we played Slovakia and lost in a shootout, but we only had to take them to overtime to eliminate them and in the process we outshot them 62-16.”
“The kids found success by staying the course, and that shifted our whole team’s mentality. Going into that tournament they were not certain they could win. I felt that we could win and the rest of the coaching staff believed we could win, but this generation of kids had never qualified or won.”
Following Nagano, Japan peaked at 7th in the 2008 World Ranking, is currently ranked 10th. The country now has 2,108 registered female players, over twice as many as No. 4-ranked Switzerland, but has not been able to remain for long in the top division in the IIHF World Championship program.
Still, it is a marked change to four years ago, when things looked grim for Japanese women’s hockey after the country lost an Olympic berth to Vancouver via a crushing 6-1 elimination at the hands of China. Following that game several players retired from the team, citing financial issues related to the cost of training.
The team had to reform and refocus for the next your years, and brought in MacLeod in order to bring some first-hand Olympic expertise both on and off the ice.
MacLeod, who won Olympic gold with Team Canada in 2006 and 2010, underlined the importance of the mental training necessary to break the mindset of a team that routinely ended up in the bottom half of the standings and saw very few wins.
“Being able to control your nerves and believe in yourself is so paramount when it comes to being an elite athlete,” she said. “It was an area that we felt we needed to be better at, so over a year and a bit ago we also brought in a mental coach for the team.”
“Our mental coach in [Vancouver] 2010 was a huge part of our success. He kept us sane (laughs). But sports psychologists these days play a huge role, obviously an on-ice coach’s job is very technical, you’re understanding the game and improving on that side, but at the end of the day if you can’t perform under pressure and believe in your ability it doesn’t matter how great your talent level is if you can’t execute at the right time.”
By qualifying for Sochi, Japan’s team has been thrust into national fame. While the Olympics are of course one of the world’s premier sporting events, in Japan the rings hold a particularly special significance, beginning at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo that saw the country’s re-emergence from the postwar period, from Nagano 1998 to Sochi 2014, and beyond to the future where Tokyo will host the Summer Games in 2020.
A Japanese athlete who qualifies for the Olympics usually becomes an overnight sensation in the country, and it was no different with the hockey team.
“For Japan the biggest event is the Olympic Games,” said team captain Chiho Osawa. “It is the most valuable opportunity to be given power to the people no matter who playing which sport.”
Since Poprad, where leading up to the tournament players would see at most one or two TV cameras after training or a game, the team now averages about twenty media members a day at the team practices.
“There’s more media coverage of this team that there was for Team Canada when I played!” said MacLeod.
“We would like to show the best performance in Sochi and would play a good game for the Japanese ice hockey development,” said head coach Yuji Izuka. “Ice Hockey is not a major sport in Japan, the media has been a big help in the promotion of ice hockey and has been a positive stimulation to teams and players.”
Forward Hanae Kubo has said that the team is aiming to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese women’s soccer team, which in 2010 became the first Asian country to raise the FIFA Women’s World Cup in a huge 3-2 penalty shootout upset of the United States.
Similarly to that team, Japan’s ice hockey ladies have benefited from an injection of cash into the hockey team via corporate sponsorship. Team members who previously had to pay for their own equipment and contribute money in order to play abroad now get free gear and lots of ice time. Since the 2013 tournament season ended, the team has had monthly training camps, gone on tours in the USA and Finland, and hosted a five-nations tournament, the highlight of which was an upset over Switzerland.
While the players still need to support themselves financially, they have also benefitted from work agreements between sponsoring companies and the Japanese National Olympic Committee, which has helped non-studying players find full- or part-time work with the companies, with flexible working hours to allow time for the Olympians to attend practices, training camps and games.
"Under my new employment clause, practice time is included in my working hours. I am more stable financially and comfortable mentally," said goalkeeper Azusa Nakaoku.
Coming in as the underdog team of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament but with the backing of a nation and a group of focused and determined players, could Japan’s sun rise even higher in Sochi?
The women's team’s only previous Olympic appearance came as hosts at the 1998 Nagano Games, where they lost all five games and were outscored 45-2. Despite being placed among the lower seeded teams, Japan is still in tough against Germany, Russia, and Sweden. Fresh off a bronze medal finish at the 2013 Women’s Worlds, Russia looks to have the inside track for top spot in Group B. Japan will need to pull off a monumental upset against either Sweden in its opening game or the hosts in the second game in order to set up a winnable match against the Germans to advance to the quarter-final stage. But this team has punched above its weight in recent tournaments, so a seventh place-finish ahead of the Germans is a realistic possibility.
Top 3 Players:
Goaltender: Azusa Nakaoku
During Japan’s two top division appearances in 2008 and 2008, Nakaoku made a name for herself with a 2.94 GAA in seven games. The 28-year old might be considered the consensus starting goaltender after posting a 1.30 GAA and 93.75 save percentage at the qualification tournament, but her spot between the pipes is not assured yet as she is seeing some stiff competition from veteran Nana Fujimoto and Akane Konishi.
Defenceman: Ayaka Toko
Was voted Directorate Top Defenceman at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IA at just 18 years of age, and later helped direct Japan’s top-ranked penalty kill that allowed just one goal on 13 power play opportunities at the qualifier. 28-year-old Kanae Aioke was impressive in the qualification tournament and will be counted on to anchor the defensive corps.
Forward: Hanae Kubo
Japan's all-time leading scorer with 28 goals hung up her skates after the team missed out on qualifying for the 2010 Vancouver Games, but returned to the ice citing the performance of the national women’s soccer team as inspiration. “She’s the all-star, kind of the Hayley Wickenheiser of Japanese women’s hockey,” said MacLeod. “She’s well known and a big game player, plays slick and has some great moves.”
Tomoko Sakagami: A strong, offensive forward that is used in several situations. Having previously struggled to make ends meet while supporting her hockey career, at one time delivering pizzas to help pay for hockey, Sakagami will be counted on to provide two-way pressure for the fast-skating Japanese.