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.