SAPPORO – Having achieved its main objective of the season by qualifying for next year’s Olympics, the women’s national ice hockey team, Smile Japan, turns its attention to the Asian Winter Games.
On Sunday, the women completed a clean sweep of their final Olympic qualifying pool by beating Austria, France and Germany on home ice, to book a spot in next year’s Pyeongchang Olympics. But having climbed that mountain by defeating the previously higher-ranked Germans (No. 8) in a winner-take-all finale, could a letdown be in the cards in Sapporo?
Here the highest-ranked opponents world No. 7 Japan will face are No. 18 Kazakhstan, the defending Asian Games gold medalist, and No. 23 South Korea. So where is Japan’s motivation?
“We are here to win a gold medal, since we’ve never won,” captain Chiho Osawa told reporters after practicing on Friday — a day ahead of the team’s tournament opener against Kazakhstan.
“We assembled yesterday and are refocused on this. It’s never about whether our opponents are lower ranked or not but about our ice hockey: Doing what we have to do and being focused.”
In Olympic qualifying, Smile Japan’s defense was tough, its passing precise and the team received high marks for communication on the ice, but to give them an extra challenge in Sapporo, head coach Takeshi Yamanaka is mixing up the members of his forwards lines a little.
“We’re changing lines to get stronger as we look toward the world championship (starting March 31),” Yamanaka said. “We have to go with the same group we had (in Olympic qualifying) because there’s not enough time to add anyone here. But I want to see different combinations.
“Our task here is to grow, everyday and with every game, grow by a centimeter or even a millimeter. I’ll be watching to see and if they grow, I’ll be ready with praise. We have these games and we have to make good use of them.”
Osawa said that switching the lines is highly irregular.
“This is a good thing for us in the big picture, because you never switch your sets three days before the start of a tournament,” she said. “Part of our strength is how well we communicate, and this is going to be a good challenge for us to develop our communication skills even further.”
Hanae Kubo, who led the qualifying tourney in points with five goals and one assist, said there was a lot of work ahead.
“Recently we could convert our scoring opportunities, and the work we’ve put in on playing defense has come to fruition,” Kubo said. “But now we are in the buildup to the Olympics, where we’ll face the world’s best, and there are many things we need to address.
“We trained extremely hard for qualifying, but that’s meaningless unless it turns into real improvement. For the challenges ahead we have to get a lot better.”
Both Yamanaka and Osawa warned that the games here would not be easy, with Osawa singling out the South Koreans as a threat a year before they host the Olympics.
“In every way, they have improved,” Osawa said. “And technically, they are vastly better. We need to give 100 percent against them. They’re not going to make it easy for us.”