OTTAWA – Although Japan finished in last place at the 1990 Women’s World Championship, the experience of participating in the first IIHF event for women was rewarding in and of itself. One of the two goalies on the team was Tamae Satsu, and despite the fact that she let in 17 goals in four games and 151:00 of action, she was named to the end of tournament all-star team.
“I brought one thing home with me that was very important and most memorable,” Satsu recalled from her home in Seattle, Washington. “I was named to the all-star team and was given a bathrobe embroidered with “all-star” on it. It was pretty special because the forwards on the all-star team were from Canada, Finland, and U.S. The defence was Canada and U.S. And then I’m the goalie!”
Her inclusion was not surprising. “The shots were always 60 or 70 to 2, so at the end of every game I was just really exhausted,” she said with a laugh 23 years later.
Satsu has played hockey from that day to since, and much earlier as well. “I was born and raised in Tomakomai which is on Hokkaido Island in northern Japan, near Russia,” she began. “I’m really tall, 5’10”, 176 cm. We have a paper factory there, and they had a hockey team. A lot of the players were former speedskaters looking for something to do, so the employees formed a hockey team. I wanted to play, but I couldn’t afford it, but they said if I played goalie I could play for free.”
“We had a city team for girls. I was only 15 when I started, and I played with a lot of girls who were older. Hockey isn’t a women’s sport. My junior high school team, the Tomakomai Pelicans, wasn’t very good when I started, but within a couple of years we won the national tournament.
Satsu also played at the first unofficial world tournament, in Toronto, three years earlier. “I played at the 1987 championship, the first time, and we had to pay $5,000 to go. I borrowed half from my mother and half from my team manager. But it was such an amazing experience.”
Because of her reputation from 1987 and her continuing play in Hokkaido, Satsu pretty much qualified to play in Ottawa. “We were kind of automatically selected to play at the 1990 World Championship,” she explained. “A lot of my teammates played, and we added some players from the Tokyo area, the second-place team. There wasn’t really a training camp. We played together for a couple of weeks before coming over, but that was about all.”
The experience of being involved in the first such event was unique, both on ice and off, and Satsu has plenty of memories. “We all stayed at a hotel, but we didn’t talk much to girls on the other teams. Back then we were pretty shy, and I didn’t speak any English at the time. But I did make friends with one of the Swiss goalies, Tanja Muller, and we stayed in touch for many years, writing letters back and forth. We didn’t have e-mail back then!”
As for the competition, she well recalls how superior the North Americans were to the rest of the competition. “I can never forget how perfect the play of the Canadians and Americans was,” she marveled. “Every country has their own style, but they skated so well, played their position so well, had such good strategy.”
The Japanese team lost the placement game to Switzerland 5-4, demoting them to the 7th-place game when a win would have moved them up to the 5th-place game. It might not sound like much today, but Satsu recalls the loss acutely.
“I remember that game very well because one of our defenceman took a hard check from a Swiss player and couldn’t get up. There was no call on the play and the Swiss scored the winning goal on the breakaway that followed. I was crying like crazy during the Swiss national anthem.”
Satsu was 23 years old at the 1990 event and working for a large architectural firm, a tenure that lasted 12 years. She married in 1995 and didn’t play again for the national team until going to Nagano.
“The federation didn’t have a lot of money for a while, and then China started to play and we couldn’t beat them,” she explained of Japan’s absence from the world tournament over the next few years. “We played qualifying tournaments with them many years but never won.”
In 1998, though, Japan was in the event as the host nation. “I was on the Olympic team as the third goalie,” Satsu recalled. “I got a sweater, but I didn’t play. It was sad, but wonderful to be there.”
Satsu’s personal life also changed in the mid-1990s. “My former husband was from Seattle and we married in 1995. He came to live in Japan, but he’s Caucasian and had trouble with the culture. He had some experiences with discrimination, so I agreed to try to live in Seattle. Two days after we arrived, I started playing hockey. We used to go to Vancouver every weekend to play. Then I played in a men’s league. They had about eight divisions, and I was in division two.”
Although her marriage didn’t last, Satsu’s passion for hockey led to her to greater happiness. “We eventually divorced, but I re-married,” she said. “I met my second husband through hockey, even though I never wanted to meet my husband through hockey, and we moved to San Jose. Then, after a while, we came back to Seattle.”
“I played hockey again,” she continued, “and our team is the Seattle Great Rock. We went to the U.S. nationals. My coach, Jill Owen, is the sister of Kelley Owen, who played for the U.S. at the 1990 World Championship as well. Jill is a firefighter.”
Small world, but these days Satsu, now 44, doesn’t play that much and has no children to take to the local rink for Saturday morning practices. “I’ll still get a phone call from someone saying, ‘We need a goalie tonight,’ and I’ll play. But I don’t have a team. I was on a team for about 25 years. It feels strange. I miss playing a lot.”
Those years working in a large architectural firm in Japan have paid off, though. Satsu is currently designing hotels and the interior for 787 airplanes, two disparate and impressive commissions.
And although her playing days are over and her life is now in Seattle, she followed the recent and successful Sochi qualification games with delight. “We’re not the strongest country, but we’re going to the Olympics, which is exciting. One of the key players is Hanae Kubo, who led the team in scoring. She is actually a distant relative of mine.”