LJUBLJANA – The 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A will not only be one of the biggest tournaments ever at this level with its new format. It will also be the one where the Japanese national team will stage its comeback after missing last year’s event due to the earthquake and tsunami disaster.
Ontario-born Mark Mahon, who has been living in Germany since coming over as a player in 1989, has coached the Japanese since the 2003/2004 season. Under Mahon the team finished fifth or sixth among the 12 Division I nations in each of the past five years and is currently in 22nd place in the IIHF World Ranking.
IIHF.com’s Martin Merk spoke with Mahon ahead of Japan’s first game against Hungary.
How do you feel being back at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I after last year’s absence?
There is a lot of excitement about being back. The players are looking forward to the opportunity to play internationally again.
Can you describe what were your feelings last year in March when you heard of all that – the earthquake, tsunami, the nuclear crisis, and eventually that your teams wouldn’t participate.
The feelings last March are hard to describe. Obviously we all knew we were dealing with a tragedy of unmatched proportions and the country was going through an emotional time. The national team staff and core players felt that it was an opportunity for the sport of ice hockey to step to the forefront and show some leadership. We wanted to play for the country and try to provide some hope through our determination and passion. Disappointingly we were not given this opportunity and as we saw a few months later the unbelievable positive impact the women’s soccer team had in bringing the country together, giving people hope and that feeling of national pride with their World Cup victory!
What has happened with the national team since? It’s been two years since the last tournament. Have there been changes? And in which direction?
Since last spring it is business as usual. We have continued our planned yearly schedule and our preparations for the World Championship. The team is presently the youngest we have ever had and this tournament will be a great step in their development and be a great experience for our young players.
Japan is ranked in the top-10 when it comes to the number of registered players. How would you describe the Japanese hockey landscape?
Sadly the sport is declining in numbers, simply the sport is not accessible in most major metropolitan regions. There are not enough rinks or opportunities for young players to play. Hokkaido still remains the hotbed for player development, but is recently faced with declining participation numbers.
There’s the Asia League since 2003. What has it done to change the game in Japan and Asia? And how has the quality of the game chanced in these nine years from your perspective?
The Asian League has been good to develop our neighbours. Korea especially has closed the gap on us. The Asian league needs to become more of a professional league. Presently a 36-game schedule is not enough games to develop the sport or the players. More games are a must and the referees need to understand international hockey more and allow more physical contact.
Despite the high number of registered players, the national team hasn’t been able to return to the top division. What is Japanese ice hockey lacking of to perform better? Is it just the size of the players as many would say? Are there other reasons?
Of course size matters, but this is an excuse in my opinion. On this team presently we have four players over 90 kg. The main reason is the Asian League. International results are a direct reflection of the level of a country's domestic league. Look at the results over the past five years what countries go up to the top division and also the impact of the KHL on Kazakhstan, Belarus, Latvia and even the EBEL league on Austria, Hungary and Slovenia. Higher-level domestic leagues help develop players and thus their respective national teams.
What does Japanese hockey, or Japanese players, need to do in order to improve and become a top contender for promotion after having been somewhere between the average the top teams at Division I level?
More games both in the domestic league and for the national team. Players need to be exposed to higher level and to more physical games on a regular basis so they can develop to their full potential. I look at the impact our participation in the Deutschland Cup in 2006 and 2007 had in developing our national team and the direct impact it had on our performance at the Qualification for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Also positive for us is the younger generation are more committed to developing the strength and conditioning standards required to compete at the international level.
Looking back at the past 15 years. What influence did the Nagano Olympics have for Japanese ice hockey? And what influence did it have that Japan was allowed to play in the Top Division 1998-2004, although with limited success?
I started with the national team at the end of that phase in 2004 and I can honestly say those years had limited impact. Developing hockey and a national team is a process you need to take the proper steps or there is no sustained development. We are presently where we belong. When the foundation in Japanese hockey becomes stronger, the Asian League becomes more professional and the national team plays more international games, then possibly our time will come. Until then we have lots of work to do.
What can you say about the younger generation of Japanese ice hockey players after your experiences with the national junior team? Has the upcoming generation of players changed compared to the established ones?
We continue to develop a small group of players at the junior level that make us competitive at the U18 level. The young generation are motivated to be pro hockey players. They are committed and passionate to develop their bodies and their skills.
You’ve been doing the job for nine years. How were the contacts established that you got this job back then?
I've been very fortunate to have had good people around me in my nine years in Japan, people who have supported me, protected me and believe in my passion for the game. I left the University of Ottawa where I was an assistant coach and took the job in Nikko in the then Japanese Ice Hockey League and after two years in Nikko the Japanese Ice Hockey Federation approached me and asked me to join the national team. I guess I was in the right place at the right time and the leaders at the JIHF liked my passion.
What have been your best moments in this position?
Winning always provides the best memories. The way we played in the Olympic Qualifiers, winning the Pre-Qualifier in Poland and being able to play in Hannover in the Final Olympic Qualification was a proud moment because as a program we were very close to maximizing our potential and as coach that is what I feel my responsibility is.
...and what have been the most difficult moments as coach of the Japanese national team?
Most difficult memories are easy. The disallowed gaol in Sapporo in 2008 that everyone saw on live TV all over Europe that it was clearly in, which ended most likely our best chance at promotion. And not be able to provide more leadership last March, the players want to play so bad for their country and I couldn't influence the decision to support their desire.
How was it for you at the beginning to be a coach for Japan? Were there difficulties with the different mentalities?
No problem, the culture is full of pride and respect. I was surrounded by good people who guided me, and in the end the hockey is hockey. Players and coaches are so alike regardless of their nationalities.
What can you tell our readers about the preparation for this tournament? How was your camp in Europe?
We spent the last week in Ukraine and played two games vs. Ukraine. It was an important time for us to grow as a team and to become mentally stronger and focus for the hard challenge that lies ahead.
What can Japan realistically reach in this tight tournament in Ljubljana? Do you dream of being promoted to the top division?
If you stop dreaming you stop living! As leaders of hockey in Japan we have to drive the expectations of our program and challenge our players to develop that winning mentality, play every game to your maximum potential.
Can hockey become a big sport in Japan?
Tough question. With better infrastructure and more work at the grass roots anything is possible. There truly is unlimited potential in Japan.
What do you envision for the future of Japanese ice hockey?
I would like to see the Asian League become a true professional league where young players dream to play. We need more teams in Japan to begin with and we need to expose Japanese Hockey to the NHL and top European leagues more, even on TV so hockey leaders, coaches and players see that there is a developed global hockey market.