Date: February 17, 2017

Japanese women all smiles ahead of Asian Winter Games hockey

Members of the Japan Women’s Ice Hockey team gather for practice
at the Asian Winter Games.

By Jim Armstrong – The Associated Press

The women’s ice hockey team from Japan is giving its fans plenty to smile about.

Fresh off qualifying for next year’s Olympics, the women’s national team, nicknamed “Smile Japan,” is aiming to keep the good times rolling at the Asian Winter Games, which begin this weekend in Sapporo.

Japan, the highest-ranked team in the tournament, gets its campaign underway on Saturday against Kazakhstan.

“We’re focused on winning the gold medal,” Japan captain Chiho Osawa said after a team practice on Friday. “We are not thinking about whether our opponents are ranked lower than us.”

Japan beat Austria 6-1, France 4-1 and Germany 3-1 in the final round of Olympic qualification last week to reach their third Winter Games following Nagano and Sochi.

While they lost all five games in Sochi, the team has shown much improvement and is hoping to contend for a medal in South Korea.

Eight teams will play in the women’s Olympic tournament in Pyeongchang. Canada and the United States are the overwhelming favourites for gold and silver, but at No. 7 in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rankings, Japan could pull off a few surprises.

The team plays a high-tempo style, taking advantage of its speed and fitness against larger players from North America and Europe.

Part of the relaxed atmosphere on the team is due to the influence of 46-year-old coach Takeshi Yamanaka, a former member of Japan’s national team that played in Nagano under Canadian coach Dave King.

Yamanaka was quick to put all the credit on his players after they secured a berth in the Pyeongchang Games.

“It’s an honour to coach such a dedicated group,” Yamanaka said.

The team is led by 34-year-old forward Hanae Kubo, who had a tournament-leading five goals and one assist in the Olympic qualifiers, including a hat trick in the 6-1 rout of Austria.

A native of Tomakomai, Hokkaido, Kubo has 32 goals and 62 points in 63 games since her first call-up to the national team way back in 1999.

Kubo remembers the disappointment of Sochi and is determined to do better next year in South Korea.

“We weren’t able to play up to our potential in Sochi,” Kudo said. “The only place to make up for that is at the Olympics.”

In the net, 27-year-old Nana Fujimoto has been solid, allowing only three goals in the Group D qualifying tournament.

Fujimoto spent a year playing for the New York Riveters of the National Women’s Hockey League and looks up to Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados.

While far from being a major sport in Japan, hockey is popular on the northernmost island of Hokkaido where the climate is more suited to winter sports.

With any luck, their style of play will lead to success in Pyeongchang and a boost in the popularity of the sport in Japan.

Sidney Crosby among fastest to 1,000 despite delays

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika –

Sidney Crosby isn’t the best player in the world because he’s more talented than everyone else. He’s the best because he works hard, he’s determined, and he’s skilled, especially in tight spaces. He makes the most of his talent and his teammates better.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins captain reached 1,000 points with an assist in a 4-3 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday, he showcased his defining traits.

Crosby stood in front of the net while a point shot bounced off Jets captain Blake Wheeler and skidded into the left circle. He and Wheeler raced to the puck, and Crosby won the battle with the strong edge work, huge hockey haunches and low center of gravity he hones in workouts and practices.

He lifted Wheeler’s stick, spun around and shielded the puck with his body. He collected the puck and found linemate Chris Kunitz with a slick pass as he has so many times before. Kunitz scored on a one-timer from the slot 6:28 into the first period, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead.

But the occasion was bittersweet, even though Crosby assisted on the tying goal in the third period and scored in overtime.

It felt like Crosby finally did it when he received a standing ovation and raised his stick in return. At the same time, he became the 12th fastest to reach 1,000 points in terms of games played (757).

Crosby, 29, should have reached 1,000 points long ago and should have far more than 1,002 now. He has missed 167 games in his NHL career. One hundred sixty-seven. That’s a little more than two seasons of the prime of one of the best players in NHL history.

He has missed about 18 percent of Pittsburgh’s regular-season games since entering the NHL in 2005-06. Had he missed, say, half that and stayed at his career average of 1.324 points per game — fifth-best in history, behind Wayne Gretzky (1.921), Mario Lemieux (1.883), Mike Bossy (1.497) and Bobby Orr (1.393) — he would have more than 1,100 points by now.

Of course we don’t know if he would have produced at the same rate. He might have produced at an even higher rate.

Crosby had 66 points through 41 games in 2010-11, averaging 1.61 per game, on pace for 132. It would have been not only the best season of his NHL career, but the best for anyone since the mid-1990s. But he missed the final 41 games that season and then 60 games in 2011-12 because of concussions, and then the final 12 of the 48-game schedule in 2012-13 because of a broken jaw.

What would he have done had he stayed healthy? Just because we can ask the same about Lemieux, Bossy, Orr and others makes it no less disappointing for him.

Crosby has overcome so much, reclaimed his place atop the game and held it amid increasing competition. Despite the concussions, setbacks and uncertainty, he has come back and played the way he used to — flying up ice, grinding down low, going to the net, taking contact and initiating it.

In 2013-14, he won the Hart Trophy as most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion for the second time each, plus his second Olympic gold medal with Canada. He was fifth in Hart voting in 2014-15, second last season. He won the Stanley Cup for the second time and the Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP for the first time last year, plus the World Cup of Hockey 2016 and tournament MVP with Team Canada.

Although he missed the first six games of this season because of a concussion, his 31 goals lead the NHL.

Look at the 11 who reached 1,000 points in fewer games: Gretzky (424), Lemieux (513), Bossy (656), Peter Stastny (682), Jari Kurri (716), Guy Lafleur (720), Bryan Trottier (726), Denis Savard (727), Steve Yzerman (737), Marcel Dionne (740) and Phil Esposito (745).

Pretty good company. Most of them scored their first 1,000 points in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. None of them did it in this lower-scoring era with its salary cap, parity, video study, emphasis on systems and stingier goaltending.

Once known as Sid the Kid, Crosby has aged to the point where he is hitting milestones and being asked to reflect. Among his competition for best player in the world is Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, 20, who grew up idolizing him. Crosby often says he appreciate things more after what he went through and doesn’t take moments like this for granted.

“I think you look at it a little bit differently when you get older,” Crosby told reporters in Pittsburgh recently. “It’s just something you enjoy a little bit more.”

But older doesn’t equal old. If he stays healthy, Crosby should keep playing at a high level, if not the highest, for the foreseeable future.

“Right now Crosby is the best player, and you have to earn your stripes,” Gretzky said before the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian were unveiled in Los Angeles on Jan. 27. “Until somebody knocks him off the castle, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

He’s at 1,002 points and counting.