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Despite hectic schedule, Japanese CWHL players ready for Olympic qualifiers

Smile Japan looks to make second straight Olympic appearance.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 11 - Germany v Japan
Smile Japan huddles around the net before their match against Germany at the Sochi Winter Olympics, February 18, 2014.
Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

In 2013 a group of women made history for their country. Team Japan defeated Denmark 5-0 at an Olympic qualifying event in Slovakia and secured their nation’s place at the Sochi Winter Games. As the host country during the 1998 women’s hockey inaugural Olympic tournament in Nagano, Japan had automatically qualified. That was their sole appearance until 2014.

Team Japan - affectionately dubbed Smile Japan - made headlines for their contagious joy in Sochi. They reveled in the Olympic experience, laying on the ice for photos, pushing each other around the rink on folding chairs and generally having the time of their lives.

Aina Takeuchi, wearing number 9, takes photos with her teammates at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
AP / Petr David Josek

Although they finished eighth in the tournament and left without a win, Smile Japan exceeded expectations and held Sweden and Russia, two of the world’s preeminent hockey nations, to one-goal victory margins. It’s a nice story on paper, until it’s over, and the inevitable question arises:

How do we make this happen again?

“I have to become strong”

The search for answers led some players overseas, to the CWHL. The first was defenseman Aina Takeuchi in 2014, drafted in the eighth round by the Calgary Inferno. She scored four points in eight games during her rookie year.

She was followed the next year by four more Japanese players, including three of her Olympic teammates and one former U-18 team alumna. Of those four, one never played, two left the league after one year, and one, Toronto Furies defenseman Sena Suzuki, remains.

“I [played at the] Sochi Olympics. But we couldn't win. Then I thought, I have to become strong and I want to get better at hockey. I decided to challenge the CWHL,” says Suzuki. She played 22 games for Toronto in her rookie season, scored six points, and was named to the 2016 CWHL All-Star Game, the first Japanese player to earn the honor.

Sena Suzuki skates out for the 2016 CWHL All-Star Game.
Shanna Martin / Habs Eyes On The Prize

Both Suzuki and Takeuchi came to the CWHL from the Japan Women’s Hockey League, Suzuki from the Seibu Princess Rabbits in Tokyo and Takeuchi from Daishin in Kushiro. Japan has 2,586 registered female hockey players compared to 87,500 in Canada and the infrastructure of player development is still very much a work in progress.

The opportunity to further their game against some of the best in the world while preparing for 2018 was a major factor in their decisions to come to North America and they both feel it’s been beneficial. “I’ve learned a lot of things from my teammates,” says Takeuchi.

“Difficult, but okay”

‘Intense’ feels too gentle of a descriptor for Takeuchi and Suzuki’s 2016-2017 schedule. As Smile Japan seeks to secure their Olympic berth, they travel to Japan once a month to spend anywhere from eight to fourteen days at national team training camps before returning to Canada.

Just how much travel time does that entail? A nonstop flight from Calgary to Tokyo is, at minimum, eleven hours, while a nonstop flight from Toronto to Tokyo is at least thirteen. Factor in transportation, check-in, security, layovers, customs, passport control, and all of the unforeseen complications that can arise during international travel and those numbers can leap dramatically. And then, of course, there’s jetlag.

Anyone who’s flown internationally is familiar with the havoc wreaked by crossing multiple time zones. It’s difficult to fathom the effects of such jetlag on anyone; the stress, exhaustion and routine disruption would fell a less determined group of women. Suzuki calls the schedule “difficult, but okay,” while Takeuchi mentions that she’s unable to see friends and family during her trips to Japan due to camp being held in a different part of the country.

“We have to win”

Despite the hardship of so much international travel, Takeuchi and Suzuki remain focused on the ultimate goal of a victory at at next month’s final Olympic qualification match, held on home ice in Tomokomai, Hokkaido, on February 9.

“We have to win the tournament,” says Takeuchi succinctly. Japan’s first test will come against Austria, who are looking for their first-ever Olympic appearance.

The opportunity to prove themselves, not only as more than a one-off but also as an aspiring hockey nation, is not lost on them. “It's important for me because I have chance [to] change Japanese hockey history,” says Suzuki. “Playing as Team Japan can broaden my own potential through learning lots of different things.”