TOMAKOMAI, HOKKAIDO - “She is the one I trust the most.”
There is no higher praise for an athlete than to hear a comment like that from their coach or manager.
The words of Japan women’s national hockey team coach Takeshi Yamanaka crystallize what teammates and mentors think about defender Akane Hosoyamada, a 25-year-old Japanese-Canadian currently in her second year with Smile Japan.
Being highly regarded is commonplace for the native of Banff, Alberta, who began playing the game at the age of 5, then attended the Warner Hockey School, before going on to star at Syracuse University.
The captain of her team at Syracuse, Hosoyamada has quickly become an integral part of the squad that will head to the Pyeongchang Olympics next week in search of Japan’s first medal ever in the sport.
“The first time it (about playing for Japan) popped into my head was when Japan went to the Sochi Olympics,” Hosoyamada told me when I first interviewed her last year. “When they qualified to go, I realized how developed hockey was in Japan.”
The process of becoming eligible to play for Japan required Hosoyamada to live and play here for a year, which she did in Kushiro, Hokkaido. She became eligible for the national team in August of 2016.
By all accounts, Hosoyamada has meshed well with her teammates. Hopes are high for Smile Japan as the roster going to South Korea now includes some 15 players with Olympic experience.
Ice Time’s observations after watching Hosoyamada, who is 163 cm and 59 kg, in action several times is that she is a solid all-around player. She is a good stick handler, deft passer and excellent skater, who is not afraid of contact.
She developed her skills as a high school student at the Warner School in Alberta, then moved on to the college ranks.
“That team traveled all across North America in the junior women’s hockey league,” she said in 2017. “That’s where I was scouted by different colleges and Syracuse talked to me.”
Hosoyamada spent five years at Syracuse. She broke her left leg seven games into her sophomore season and redshirted that year.
Syracuse coach Paul Flanagan continued to hold his former player in the highest esteem when contacted for comments recently.
“First of all, a coach couldn’t ask for a more positive, compassionate and well-liked individual than Akane,” Flanagan wrote in an email. “She is a wonderful person whose caring personality meant so much to our program.”
Flanagan provided his analysis of Hosoyamada’s game and character.
“Akane skates effortlessly, possesses very good skills and is an intelligent player in all aspects of the game,” Flanagan detailed. “Although not typically the biggest player on the ice, she certainly plays with a big heart and is a ‘Team First’-type of player.
“She was a very important part of our success here on the ice, in the classroom and in the gym,” added Flanagan. “She was a role model for all of her teammates by the way she carried herself and earned respect.”
In conclusion, Flanagan wished Hoyamada and Smile Japan the best at the Olympics.
“We are so happy and proud for Akane and her family! The Syracuse Orange family will be cheering for her and wish Akane and her team the best of luck,” Flanagan remarked.
Hosoyamada’s credentials on the ice are not in question, but she complements them with a great personality and an electric smile. I found her to be intelligent, articulate and to have a good sense of humor.
After living in Japan for a while now, Hosoyamada says she has assimilated smoothly into daily life.
“There is nothing too tough for me,” she stated after a recent exhibition game in Tomakomai. “I’m living here by myself. I have my own car. I can move around by myself with not too much stress.”
Having the rink in close proximity to her place makes it convenient.
“All the training camps are here,” Hosoyamada commented. “Travel is not that bad either. I’m actually pretty content living in Tomakomai right now. I have been living here since June of 2017.”
Parents relocated to Canada
How Hosoyamada’s parents ended up in Canada is an interesting tale in itself.
Her father Manabu, who is from Kagoshima, and mother Yoshiko, who hails from Osaka, met when they were ski tour guides traveling to Canada with groups from Japan back in the 1980s. The pair hit it off and then decided to make their life in Alberta.
Akane’s brother Ryo is three years older and a flight attendant. She first put on skates at 3 with an interest in figure skating, but eventually followed Ryo’s path and took up hockey.
What does Hosoyamada miss most about home?
“Just being around my friends and family and that environment,” she said. “My parents are here in Japan all the time, so I have been seeing them a lot.”
When I mentioned food, she did confess a longing for honey crullers from the Tim Hortons donut shop chain in Canada.
Growing up in Alberta, Hosoyamada had several players she looked up to.
“As a youngster I admired Hayley Wickenheiser,” Hosoyamada commented. “She has been in the Hockey Canada program since she was 16 and in the Olympics several times. Definitely an idol. Cassie Campbell (a left wing and two-time Olympic gold medalist) was another female role model.”
Wickenheiser, who was a center, won four Olympic gold medals and one silver in an amazing career with Team Canada that lasted for 23 years until she retired last year.
Hosoyamada also recalled how a small gesture from an NHL player long ago really inspired her.
“Dave Lowry was a veteran player with the Calgary Flames,” Hosoyamada said. “When I was still in middle school or elementary school, I got an autograph from him with some positive comments. So that was pretty cool.”
Lowry played more than 1,000 games in the NHL and is now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings.
Asked what she thinks is the strongest part of her game, Hosoyamada replied that it was not a particular move or skill, but the mental aspect of competition.
“I move on instinct, so I don’t think much, I just react,” she stated. “My strongest point is reacting, going with my gut.”
Though Hosoyamada is a defender, she can also find the net. At last year’s Division 1A world championships in Austria she scored a hat trick in Japan’s victory over Norway.
Fellow defender Shiori Koike was full of plaudits for Hosoyamada.
“She plays like no other Japanese player,” Koike stated. “She is aggressive on offense and significant in any zone. She has influenced me with her play.”
If there is one thing that is universal in sports, it is that coaches like and respect players who come in, do the job, and don’t cause any trouble. Coaching is pressure enough without prima donnas or divas to worry about.
Yamanaka, Smile Japan’s 46-year-old bench boss, is no different.
“I trust Akane’s play on offense and defense,” Yamanaka commented. “She fights hard around the net and in the corners. She plays physically and is very influential.”
Captain Chiho Osawa, who plays on the same club team (DK Peregrine) with Hosoyamada in Tomakomai, talked about the defender’s impact on the ice for Smile Japan.
“She is aggressive on both offense and defense,” Osawa said. “She only provides a positive influence. We call her ‘AK’ and recognize that she has really introduced a new style of hockey in Japan.”
Osawa got more specific in detailing Hosoyamada’s effect on the game.
“She has stamina and can bring the puck up ice and attack a defense,” Osawa noted. “She has the ability to change the tempo in tough moments.”
Hosoyamada, Yamanaka and Osawa all mentioned the positive vibe running through the team as the Olympics loom. Japan went 0-5 in Sochi four years ago, but that might as well be ancient history now.
With their speed, agility and teamwork, a medal is within the team’s grasp.
“We are definitely aiming for a medal. That is our main goal,” Hosoyamada stated. “We are just trying to go game by game when we get there. Sweden, Switzerland, Korea (Japan’s opponents in the preliminary round).
“We are just really preparing right now. We are focusing on ourselves right now and feeling pretty good about it.”
Yamanaka shared Hosoyamada’s outlook.
“The mood on the team is good right now and we are confident,” he said.
Osawa echoed the sentiments of her coach and teammate.
“We have a very good feeling in the team and good balance right now,” Osawa commented.
Respect for Japanese culture
Hosoyamada doesn’t have much down time, but does occasionally get out.
“In my same apartment building I live with another teammate, Shiori Koike,” Hosoyamada stated. “We hang out all the time and go eat. We go shopping sometimes.
“We are on the same club team, so we go to practices together,” Hosoyamada added. “She is pretty much my best friend this year. We have been together all year.”
Hosoyamada even identified her current cooking specialty.
“I just cook what I want to eat,” she said. “I’m pretty good at making meat sauce spaghetti.”
Hosoyamada cited the extended stay in her ancestral homeland for helping to give her a real respect for Japanese culture.
“To be honest, when I was younger, I wasn’t really into Japanese culture,” she confessed. “My brother was really into it. He used to listen to Japanese music all the time. But I wasn’t really interested.
“When I came and lived here, I’m loving the Japanese culture and want to learn more about it. I’m really just going back to my roots. I love the food here.”
When questioned about what is the best part of living in Japan, Hosoyamada told a heartwarming story about the support she has received.
“The people,” she commented. “Being close to my teammates. We are all about the same age. We all get along. It’s really great.
“My teammates’ parents, they really take me under their wing and treat my like I’m their daughter. So that is like a second family I can have when my family can’t be here.”
Hosoyamada, who has a degree in health and exercise science from Syracuse, talked about her post-Olympic plans.
“I’m going to enjoy the time off from hockey. Maybe go back home,” she said. “Travel with some teammates.
“I think I am going to stay here another year. I want to go to the Division I world championships in Finland. I’m just taking it year to year right now.”
Hosoyamada’s dream as a young girl growing up in Canada was to play in the Olympics. She has achieved that goal in a journey that has taken her far away from home.
What does it mean to her to be able to play for Japan in Pyeongchang?
“It means I have the opportunity to play for something much bigger than myself,” Hosoyamada stated. “Representing Japan means giving hope to the younger generations. Hockey is a growing sport in Japan, and I hope our team can influence young girls and boys around the country to get the same amazing experience I have had with hockey.
“The life lessons I have learned through this sport are intangible, yet have shaped me as the athlete, and, more importantly, the person I am today. I am very fortunate to represent the country of Japan and what it stands for.”
Hosoyamada’s athletic ability is clearly elite, but her sensitivity, vision and compassion really resonate behind the ice and into life.
Every parent should be fortunate enough to have a daughter grow up to be like Akane Hosoyamada.