The start of the 2014 Winter Olympics hosted in Sochi, Russia is less than a month away, and making a surprising and anticipated appearance is Japan’s women’s ice hockey team. Yes, Japan has both men’s and women’s national hockey teams, though not professional, with about 2,000 female and over 7,000 male players.
The team secured their slot at the 2014 Winter Olympics after beating Denmark 5-0 in the final qualifying round in Slovakia back in February 2013. The Japanese women’s hockey team has only played in one previous Olympic Games, the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and only qualified then because Japan was the host nation. During those Games, Japan’s women’s team finished 6th after losing all five games. After failing to qualify for the 2010 Olympics, several members of the women’s team retired, discouraged and unsure of their futures as players due to economic concerns. This year the women’s team was the first Japanese team or individual to secure a place at the Sochi Games, and their success has caused a substantial amount of buzz.
Ice Hockey is not a particularly popular or heavily-funded sport in Japan, and with no professional women’s hockey teams in Japan, in the past the players have had to find odd jobs to support themselves and their team financially. The busy and demanding training schedule to prepare for the qualifying round last year as a result was a hefty burden on the members of the women’s team. Since qualifying for Sochi, however, their jump in fame has earned them vindication and an influx of support in the form of corporate sponsorships. The Japanese Olympic Committee has also helped all the players, except students, find full time work at companies willing to hire Olympians or those with an “athlete employment system,” a program to support promising athletes. Although the daily schedule for the players is still relatively hectic, the support they’ve received has had a significant boost on their morale.
The team has several key members such as goalie Azusa Nakaoku and forward Yuka Hirano, but the player to look out for is Hanae Kubo, the team’s star forward and Japan’s all-time leading scorer with 28 goals. Kubo retired after Japan’s team lost to China and failed to qualify for the Olympics back in 2010, but was inspired to return after watching the Japanese women’s soccer team win the World Cup in 2011. Kubo helped Japan qualify for Sochi by scoring 2 goals in their 5-0 victory against Denmark.
The Japanese women’s hockey team, dubbed “Smile Japan,” has been placed in Group B, along with Sweden, Germany and host nation Russia. Their first game at the Sochi Olympics is against Sweden on February 9th. The hope is that, with the help of former Canadian player Carla MacLeod as Assistant Coach, “Smile Japan” will set the tone for Japan at the Olympic Games and perform well enough to help grow the sport’s popularity in Japan.