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NAGANO — Despite a stellar performance by his team at last weekend’s Nagano Cup tournament, Japan coach Mark Mahon knows it will take a strong team effort for his squad to qualify for the ice hockey tournament at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Japan, ranked 15th in the world, is in Group A along with Denmark, Norway and No. 9 Switzerland, and will open the final Olympic qualifying tournament on Feb. 10 against the host team at Kloten, Switzerland.

Only the top team will earn a berth for Turin and the Canadian-born coach is taking a realistic approach to his team’s chances.

“We know the only way we can beat Switzerland is if we have all 22 guys pulling in the same direction,” Mahon said. “Switzerland is a very good team and we’re going to have to play close to a perfect game.”

Nine teams, including defending gold-medalist Canada and host Italy, have already qualified.

Japan automatically qualified for the 1998 Nagano Olympics as the host nation but didn’t make it to Salt Lake City four years later.

The Japanese squad defeated a Russian team 5-4 in Sunday’s final game of the Nagano Cup. The victory came two days after the Japanese stomped a visiting Canadian club team 8-2, turning some heads in the process.

“They play with a ton of speed and a ton of intensity for the full 60 minutes,” Blaine Gusdal, coach of the Mid-West Islanders from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, said of the Japanese. “They come at you in waves, and they appear to be very well coached.”

Los Angeles Kings draft pick Yutaka Fukufuji, who currently plays in the East Coast Hockey League, was one of the goaltenders named to the Japan team but will only play in Switzerland if the Kings agree to let him go.

Japan also has Canadian imports Chris Yule, Ryan Fujita and Aaron Keller, but the homegrown talent has come a long way since the Nagano Olympics says Mahon.

Captain Takahito Suzuki played a strong game against Canada in the Nagano Cup and has benefited from his experience in the ECHL.

“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” said Mahon. “He brings the intangibles to the game and enjoys the physical aspects.”

Mahon, 39, was appointed head coach of Japan’s national team a year ago and says he likes the challenge of improving Japan’s hockey program.

“The team has become more competitive because of our team defense,” added Mahon. “We have a very young team and I think one of my responsibilities is to develop the younger players.”

The native of Vankleek Hill, Ontario, played 11 years in Germany and was the head coach of the Nikko Ice Bucks of the Japanese League for two years. Other Canadians to have coached Japan’s men’s hockey team include Glen Williamson, Steve Tsujiura and former Calgary Flames coach Dave King.

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