Dubbed “Smile Japan”, the women’s ice hockey team were the first Japanese athletes to secure a slot for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. They earned their place in Group B, alongside Germany, Sweden and host nation Russia, after beating Denmark 5-0 in a qualification tournament in Slovakia, last February.
The women’s qualification for the Games came for many as a surprise, particularly as ice hockey lies in the shadows of more popular sports in Japan, such as golf and football. However, the 21 players are no strangers to the international and Asian ice hockey circuit, having played in the top division of the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships, and securing medal finishes in the Asian Winter Games and the 2012 IIHF Women's Challenge Cup of Asia.
The team can also count on several key members, including Hanae Kubo – the team’s forward and the country’s all-time top scorer – and veteran defender, Yoko Kondo, who is the squad’s most experienced and oldest player, being a member since its debut in the Nagano Games in 1998.
Helping Kubo, Kondo and the other Japanese players on their road to Sochi is former Olympic champion, Carla MacLeod. After winning women’s ice hockey gold with her Canadian team mates at the 2006 and 2010 Games, MacLeod has been acting as assistant coach in a bid to lend her expertise to the women’s team as they hope not only to find Olympic success in Sochi, but also to promote the sport’s popularity in the land of the rising sun.
Already since their qualification for Sochi, “Smile Japan” has seen a rise in support and fame in their country, from corporate sponsorship and funding to greater employment opportunities and programmes for promising athletes. Such rallying support is not only boosting the players morale ahead of the Games, but is also paving the way for a brighter future for women’s ice hockey in Japan and across Asia, particularly as the continent is set to welcome the next Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang in 2018.