Big plans for hockey during centennial year in Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Those who follow the sport of hockey in Japan will be as enthusiastic as ever from now on.

News photoJapan’s women’s hockey team qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after taking the silver medal at last
year’s Asian Games in Doha.
JAPAN HOCKEY ASSOCIATION PHOTO

Why?

Because it is the centennial year of hockey taking root on the soil of the nation, and there will be a massive chance for it to be recognized more as the Beijing Olympics are held next summer.

Hockey — often referred as “field hockey” — to distinguish it from “ice hockey,” was introduced to Japan by an Irish priest named William T. Grey at Keio University in 1906. The first hockey club was established there later the same year.

Hockey became an official event at the 1908 London Olympics (it was dropped for the 1924 Games and reinstated in 1928), and Japan’s men’s team won the silver medal in the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. It finished sixth in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The sport grew up among women, too. The Japan women’s national squad was eighth in the Athens Games, three years ago, and drew attention back home.

The Japan Hockey Association held the 100th anniversary party in Tokyo last month, and declared its strong intention to spread the sport across the country and attempt to make it major, like baseball and soccer.

“The seeds sown by the Irish priest William T. Grey were developed by the past leaders and predecessors that devoted their passion to this sport,” JHA chairman Motohito Yoshida said. “And their effort and power are fully utilized in modern hockey.”

One clear-cut element toward achieving the big goal of growing hockey into a major sport is the success of both the men’s and women’s national teams in international games, particularly in the Olympics.

In last December’s Asian Games in Doha, the women’s team won the silver medal and qualified for the Beijing Games.

The men’s squad, meanwhile, just missed a medal, finishing fourth.

But there is still a good chance for the men’s national team to make it to Beijing.

Japan is hosting the final qualifier for the 2008 Olympics next April at Gifu Green Stadium in Kakamigahara, Gifu Prefecture.

The stadium, which was built in 2000 and has held a number of local, national and international events, is said to be the largest hockey facility in the world.

The JHA thinks the qualifying tournament will be a prime opportunity for the sport to reach people and familiarize them with the sport.

“We as the JHA have been trying to establish ‘the Japanese hockey in the new generation’ since 2001,” Yoshida said. “In order to achieve that, the berths of the national teams of both men and women in the Beijing Olympics will be the first testing point.

“We need to push forward in unison entering the qualifier.”

After its strong results in the Asian Games, the women’s national team has a more realistic chance of making a podium finish. To achieve that, the JHA is taking major steps to focus on that goal.

The JHA announced the plans for both the men’s and women’s national teams for the 2007 fiscal year (from April through March 2008) on March 9. The women’s team will spend some 250 days for training camps or games, including warmup games against foreign powerhouse nations.

The women’s team was fifth in the World Cup in Madrid, and the men’s team was ninth in the World Cup in Monchengladbach, Germany, last year.

The Japan Hockey League (10 men’s teams and eight women’s teams), in which corporate and collegiate teams play, is the top league in the country.

The women’s league started in 1997, followed by the men’s in 2002.