Carla MacLeod calls it “perma-jet lag.”
Since February 2012, MacLeod has travelled to Japan ten times to help that nation’s women’s hockey team prepare for, arguably, the biggest tournament in its history.
Next week, Japan opens the 2014 Olympic qualifier against Norway on Thursday in Poprad, Slovakia.
MacLeod, a two-time Olympic gold medallist as a defenceman on Canada’s National Women’s Team, is now behind the bench as an assistant coach with Team Japan. She makes her home in Calgary, Canada, which is 16 hours behind Japanese time.
“It’s hard,” says MacLeod during an interview via Skype, held just before the team departed Japan for two exhibition games in Czech Republic. “I have been really tired the whole year but I’ve also really loved the opportunity. It’s so fun to try to get these guys to the next level. It’s crazy. You have such a language barrier but you can still establish such awesome relationships. That’s what keeps me going.”
The Japanese national women’s team has never reached the Olympics by winning a qualifier, or pre-clinching an Olympic spot through the World Ranking, and goes into the 2014 Olympic qualifier as an underdog. Japan, ranked 11th in the world, is joined by host Slovakia (7), Norway (10) and Denmark (19) in Poprad this week. The tournament follows a round-robin format, with each team playing three games. The team with the most points at the end of the round-robin qualifies for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
There is a second qualifier being held over the same stretch (Feb. 7-10) in Germany, with the host Germans (8) taking on Kazakhstan (9), Czech Republic (12) and China (13).
The Japanese Ice Hockey Federation has contributed a lot of time and money into its women’s hockey program. With the Japanese men’s team ranked 22nd in the world, the JIHF realized its women’s program should be the focus for Sochi 2014.
MacLeod says the federation has supported the program like never before.
“They brought me in and asked ‘Carla, what do you think we need to do?’ ” she said. “We asked if we could have a camp every month and that’s expensive. But they found a way. The federation here has been really supportive of our group and we’ve had a (week-long) camp every month since May (2012).”
Each month, players and coaches have had ample time to focus on systems, on-ice skills, breaking down video, and coming together as a team.
There is no doubt that the camps have made a tremendous difference. MacLeod says the main thing she noticed during her first trip to Japan in February 2012 was the players’ lack of hockey sense. They could all “skate like the wind” and had the necessary skill to compete.
“They could have made 100 passes in a row when they knew where the puck was supposed to go. So their skill set was actually quite high. They’re fast, they’re good at passing, they’re decent at shooting,” MacLeod says.
But, MacLeod adds, their weaknesses were evident when she designed a drill where the players didn’t know where the puck was supposed to go.
So that has been one of the main challenges. MacLeod and the rest of the coaching staff had to find unique ways for their players to increase their hockey IQ.
“Just teaching them systems and understanding where to go on the fore check and how to play defensive zone and why they’re doing it, that’s been the biggest shift in paradigm,” she says. “At our June camp, I had them lead their own video sessions. We would find the clips as a coaching staff and then I would have them talk through them. For me to stand up there and say you have to do this, this and this, it didn’t really make sense. So we really tried to use different approaches to enlighten them to the game.”
“They now use their speed for a purpose.”
That speed was on display for Canadian hockey fans in September, when Team Japan visited Calgary and played five exhibition games against reputable university teams. Japan defeated the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, NAIT Ooks and Mount Royal Cougars. MacLeod, interestingly enough, is also an assistant coach of the Cougars.
Japan dropped its other two games to the University of Alberta Pandas and University of Calgary Dinos.
Someday, MacLeod would like to see Japanese players competing at the university level in North America. Many nations – Russia, Finland and Sweden come to mind – have grown their women’s hockey programs thanks in large part to their players heading to North American colleges and universities.
“The biggest hiccup (for Japanese players) is the language,” says MacLeod. “They don’t have the English so they can’t go to school. I have been working with them on that as well and trying to encourage them to learn English so they can go and play over there because that would be huge for Japanese hockey.”
For her part, MacLeod is thrilled with where she is in her coaching career. Almost three years removed from her playing days, MacLeod says the fit with Team Japan is perfect.
“I think I like coaching more than playing,” she says. “You have that opportunity to help somebody achieve their goal or become better at some specific skill, whatever it might be. You’re trying to better a person. As a player, you’re so self-centred and self-focused, which you have to be to achieve the level you want to achieve.
“Ultimately, I prefer the more global team approach. Coaching gets me excited every day.”