On February 2014, the Japanese Women’s Ice Hockey national team will be making its highly anticipated return to Olympic competition as they take to the ice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. This will be the first time the team – already dubbed by Japanese fans as the “Smile Japan” team – will be participating in the ice hockey competition since Japan hosted the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998. Along with the Smile Japan team goes a fresh new hope for the sport of ice hockey in Japan, a sport that has captured the country’s attention since the team qualified for Sochi.
Qualification for Sochi 2014 came as a wonderful surprise for Japan, particularly because ice hockey is not as famous as the other popular sports in Japan, such as golf and football. But the women’s ice hockey team defied all expectations, being the Japanese athletes to secure a slot for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. They battled for their place in a tough qualification tournament that saw them beat Denmark 5-0 Slovakia, last February 2013. They now take their place in a tough Group B, which includes Germany, Sweden and the host nation Russia.
The 21 players included in the Smile Japan team are no strangers to the international game. Most of them have played in the top division of the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships. The team also secured great finishes in the Asian Winter Games and the 2012 IIHF Women’s Challenge Cup of Asia. Bannering the team in Sochi would be Hanae Kubo, the team’s star forward and the country’s all-time top scorer. Also in the team to provide strength and inspiration is veteran defender, Yoko Kondo, who is the squad’s most experienced and oldest player, already a member of the women’s ice hockey team since its debut in the Nagano Games in 1998. The team will also be boosted by the coaching skills of retired Canadian hockey star Cara McLeod, who joined the team in March 2013.