NIKKO – Go Tanaka was just about to lace up his skates when the world began to shake. What followed was the worst earthquake to hit Japan in the modern age.
Thankfully for Tanaka and his team, the Tohoku Free Blades of the Asia League, they and their families were able to escape unscathed. The quake struck on March 11, 2011, a day before the Blades were to play in Game 1 of the championship final against Anyang Hala from Korea. 20 months later Tanaka is now with the Japanese national team, trying to qualify for the 2014 Olympics.
“We were about 15 minutes away from starting practice at the rink in Koriyama, in the Fukushima prefecture,” said Tanaka. “It was just before practising and I remember I was just about to put my skates on and go on the ice. That’s when the building started to shake, the lights went off and some debris from the ceiling started falling down. I never experienced a shake like that and it was a scary moment.”
Barely able to stay on his feet, Tanaka and his teammates hugged the walls of the arena as they made their way outside to relative safety. In all, the quake lasted about five minutes.
Following the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami it triggered, over 15,000 people lost their lives.
Hockey, it goes without saying, was put aside. The team, still wearing their practice gear, got onto their bus and returned to the hotel, driving through a city with no power, marked with damaged homes and shops.
The Asian League championship was cancelled that year, and the Japanese national team pulled out of all IIHF competitions.
Flash forward to November 2012, as the rebuilding of the Fukushima and Sendai areas continues even now. Japan’s men’s national team prepares to take to the ice Friday, with the single purpose of pulling off the improbable and getting to hockey’s ultimate tournament, the Winter Olympics.
The first step? Outplaying Great Britain, Romania, and Korea to win the Pre-Qualification Group J tournament on home ice in Nikko, home to some of Japan’s most famous shrines and temples and considered one of the most beautiful places in the country.
While hockey may not be as popular in the country as baseball or football, the game’s development in Asia has its roots in Japan. Hockey has been played here for decades, Japan an IIHF member since 1930. The Asia League, formed in 2003 to increase the level of hockey in the Far East, is headquartered on the island nation with two additional teams from Korea and one from China.
But in the modern age, is Japanese hockey moving forward or back? The core of Japan’s youth development system is based around university programs. Hokkaido, the northern island traditionally known as country’s lone hockey hotbed, which routinely sends its high school players to Tokyo universities to play hockey, has seen declining participation numbers.
But a new home for the sport has popped up, in an unlikely place. Kansai University, located in the south of the country, closer to Osaka than Tokyo, has developed a hockey program into one of the best in the country, rivalling established programs centred in the Japanese capital.
The program’s emergence came about when the university made the unorthodox decision to build a year-round Olympic size ice skating rink in 2006. Norio Suzuki, assistant coach to the Japanese national team and former national team player, was hired to revamp the program into a contender.
“For a long time the place for hockey players was Hokkaido. But with less kids playing there now, in the Kansai area other kids began picking up the sport and it’s become more popular,” he said.
Now there are 23 teams in the Kansai area. The university team, which routinely got kicked out of the first round of the national championship, has now made the quarter-finals five years in a row. At one point the demand to join the university team led to Suzuki carrying 50 players, forcing his to trim the roster down to 30.
“That’s the only way the sport is going to grow, to take an area where it isn’t well known and build awareness and support for the game,” said Suzuki. “Now we get good players coming out from different areas and I think it’s a bit similar to the NHL, where they expanded to warmer states and they ended up winning championships.”
So after years of having the sport confined to the northern limits of the country, Japan’s development program has begun to spread itself out.
“In ten years, they’ll probably be the leaders in university hockey,” said national team head coach Mark Mahon. “It’s an evolution, parents are going to realize the university has more to offer, more competitive coaching, better facilities, and commitment to education.”
And with a more expansive youth development program, things are looking up ice hockey in the country. For the national team, the tournament in Nikko offers a golden opportunity to push the interest and support for the game even higher.
“For the Japanese the Olympics are it, the pinnacle of sports competition,” said Mahon. “If we can win this tournament and advance to the next stage in February, it will be a huge boost for our team and the program.”
Japan will have it tough, but is competing on home ice after Great Britain declined to host the tournament. Home ice advantage is no small thing in this case, when two of the other competing teams flew in from as far away as Great Britain and Romania to compete in a tournament that is only three days long.
“The games are going to be tight,” said Mahon. “With three games in 50 hours for most of the teams I think the physical and mental balance is going to play a big role.”
“I think we’re close to breaking through to the top level, we have a pretty good group of young players,” said national team assistant coach and Tohoku Free Blades head coach Chris Wakabayashi. “The domestic league needs to get better, right now development stops at the university level and we need to change that.”
“Players also need to go abroad, you see other countries like Denmark, Italy and Hungary, those countries go outside of the country to play in other, better leagues,” he said. “Our players need to get out and see the world, until those things happen it’ll be harder to take it to the next level.”
Although they weren’t able to compete in an international tournament to lift their nation’s spirits following the earthquake, Go Tanaka, his teammates, and his coaches are excited for the opportunity for the team, not only to potentially make the Olympics, but also to bring hockey back to the spotlight, a place it hasn’t been since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Wakabayashi, who was working with the Japanese national team at the time. “Something I’ll never forget. I want to go back, and now we actually have to chance to get back there.”