Ready for the next step?

Playing in neighbourhood can be chance for Japan

20.04.2014
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Japan celebrates a goal in one of its biggest wins in recent years after defeating Austria in 2012. Photo: Samo Vidic

For the first time in six years the Japanese men’s national team can play a Division I event in its region. But can it also succeed in Korea?

Since losing its status as Asian qualifier in the top division, the Japanese tried to develop against opponents in Division I but have failed to earn promotion, mostly by two places in the final ranking. In the IIHF World Ranking, the Japanese are in 22nd place, only one before regional rival Korea.

However, hockey is still a sport that has its fans in the land of the rising sun and over 15,000 registered players. And every now and then there’s a player that shines in international competition. Like 26-year-old Shuhei Kuji, who has notched at least four points in each of his last four IIHF events. Or evergreens like captain Go Tanaka, former Los Angeles Kings goalie Yutaka Fukufuji or Canada-born Aaron Keller, who moved to Japan in 1999.

“We played last year’s World Championship event with half our roster 24 years of age or younger and this experience has helped them develop and prepared them to take more responsibility for our program,” said long-time Japan head coach Mark Mahon.

Indeed, most key players from last year’s team that finished fourth behind the two promoted teams and Hungary are still with the team. The players of the classes between 1988 and 1996 earned eight top-20 finishes in nine years in the U18 World Championship overall rankings indicating that good fresh players are around.

“This year we have a nice mix of veteran players and young energetic players so we will look to play a high-tempo game that strongly characterizes our Japanese style of play,” Mahon said.

For once the Japanese didn’t have a long way to go geographically. Rather than flying to Europe, they went to the Korean capital of Seoul – just a flight of a little bit over two hours from Tokyo. For once they’re in an environment where they can enjoy an atmosphere that’s much closer to home culture and food-wise in comparison to the destinations of the last five years. It was in 2008 when the Japanese played in men’s Division I in Asia for the last time, on home soil in Sapporo.

The coaching staff appreciates that the Korean Ice Hockey Association took the challenge of hosting one of the most prestigious events in the annual IIHF calendar.

“For Team Japan it is nice to be able to limit our travel this year not having to make that long trip to Europe. This will hopefully help in our preparations and our ability to play a successful tournament,” Mahon said.

He expects a tight tournament like in the last two years. Many hockey fans would wish an Asian touch in the top division for a change. Can Japan surprise this year while the favourites are struggling with absences?

The first game on Sunday afternoon against Slovenia will provide a good indicator. Two years ago the Japanese lost 4-2 against the same opponent but scored a major upset with the first victory against Austria in 33 years. The favourites should be warned.

MARTIN MERK

Japan’s final roster

Goalkeepers:
Yutaka Fukufuji, Nikko Ice Bucks
Yuta Narisawa, Oji Eagles

Defencemen:
Kazumasa Sasaki, Oji Eagles
Aaron Keller, Oji Eagles
Denis Akimoto, Nippon Paper Cranes
Ryo Hashimoto, Oji Eagles
Shun Sakata, Nippon Paper Cranes
Takafumi Yamashita, Oji Eagles
Shinya Yanadori, Nippon Paper Cranes

Forwards:
Yuto Osawa, Oji Eagles
Takuma Kawai, Tohoku Free Blades
Masahito Nishiwaki, Nippon Paper Cranes
Hiroshi Sato, Nippon Paper Cranes
Go Tanaka, Tohoku Free Blades
Kohei Mitamura, Oji Eagles
Daisuke Obara, Nippon Paper Cranes
Takeshi Saito, Oji Eagles
Shuhei Kuji, Oji Eagles
Kenta Takagi, Nippon Paper Cranes
Seiji Takahashi, Oji Eagles
Hiroki Ueno, Nikko Ice Bucks
Takuro Yamashita, Tohoku Free Blades

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