Women’s ice hockey team banking on Sochi

by Tadashi Watanabe

Kyodo

Instant fame does not mean instant cash.

That is the reality faced by members of Japan’s women’s ice hockey team amid the glow of media attention it has received since booking a spot in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The team sealed its Olympic berth in the final qualifying round in Slovakia in February, becoming the first Japanese team or individual to secure a place at the Sochi Games.

As a result, the team was catapulted from obscurity to fame overnight, a situation reminiscent of the meteoric rise of the “Nadeshiko Japan” soccer team after its unexpected victory in the 2011 women’s World Cup.

The jump in fame is injecting cash into the hockey team in the form of corporate sponsorship offers. The number of companies on board, each coughing up an estimated ¥10 million, has climbed from four to seven, with still more planning to jump on the sponsorship bandwagon.

However, the players themselves endure a life of austerity typical for those in minor sports and struggle to make ends meet by doing odd jobs.

There are no professional women’s ice hockey teams in Japan, and amateur teams cannot expect to nail the generous corporate sponsorship offers common in more popular sports.

After failing to qualify for the 2010 Vancouver Games, several players retired from the national team, citing uncertainty over their own economic prospects.

To prepare for the Sochi qualifying round, the team was expected to join national training sessions almost every month.

The busy training schedule was a burden on the players, but their morale was sustained by the hope that winning a ticket to the Olympics would change their lives for the better.

Indeed, the warm welcome the national team received upon returning from Russia was vindication.

After the failed Vancouver bid, only one media outlet was waiting for the team at the airport. This time, more than 100 reporters attended the victory press conference in Japan.

“We have made various sacrifices for the team,” player Yuka Hirano said. “I’m glad to have ended up with a smile.”

Toshiyuki Sakai of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation marveled at the surge in interest.

“This is more than what we saw at the time of the Nagano Olympics. I didn’t expect a strong response like this to the women’s team’s successful performance,” he said.

The 1998 Nagano Olympics was the first and only time the Japanese women’s hockey team, which qualified because it was from the host nation, played in the Olympics.

As a warmup for the Olympics in February, the Japanese team will train in the United States in September and participate in a four-nation competition in Yokohama in November.

On the media front, the women are trying to copy the success of the soccer team, whose sexist nickname, Nadeshiko, named after a flower, has become a household term in a country often criticized for sex discrimination in the workplace.

The hockey team’s own moniker? “Smile Japan.”

The hope now is that a successful performance in Sochi will help ice hockey shed its minor sport status. “We will try our best, as Nadeshiko has done, so that ice hockey will become more popular,” team captain Chiho Osawa said.