Kubo is closer to the end of her career than the beginning, but she is relishing every moment and appreciates the opportunity she has with the team. She came to the game naturally, starting to skate at the age of four so she could join her brother on ice. They would go to the arena together in Hokkaido, and soon enough she had a stick in her hand and a puck on her tape, enjoying everything about the world’s fastest game on ice.
And just like millions of Americans who were inspired to play hockey after the Miracle on Ice gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980, Kubo started to take hockey seriously after similar inspiration.
“When I was in junior high school and 15 years old, the Olympics were in Nagano and I watched all the women’s games on TV,” she explained. “It was the first time the women played at the Olympics, and I loved how fast the game was and how skilled the players were. That’s what inspired me to continue to play hockey. I wanted to play in the Olympics. That became my dream.”
That dream began a year later when she was selected to play for Japan at the B-Pool tournament of the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. It turned out to be the start of an incredible adventure that continues two decades later.
“In 1999, it was all new to me,” Kubo continued. “We expected all of the teams to be better than us, but we won every game and moved up to the top pool for the next year. That was a big surprise for me.”
Japan was in the top pool in 2000 but finished last and demoted. After the 2002 Olympics, the 2003 top-level tournament was cancelled because of SARS, but in Division I Japan earned promotion for 2004, only to be demoted again.
At that point, Kubo decided to go all in. “In 2005, I moved to Canada for a season because I wanted a new challenge and to play at a higher level. I wanted to develop my skills and become a better player, and there were many more opportunities in Canada than there were in Japan.”
She played for the Oakville Ice in the NWHL and finished second in team scoring with 34 points in 36 games, but when she returned to Japan things took a turn for the worse.
“I lost my motivation when I came home because I wasn’t selected for the national team. I was unhappy and I stopped playing entirely.”
And so, like many other players before her, Kubo seemed to have had her career come to an end.
“The Federation had asked me to rejoin the team many times, but I always had said no,” Kubo explained. “But in 2011, I decided to play hockey again. I changed my mind for two reasons. First, the Women’s World Cup of soccer was played in 2011 in Germany in July. Japan beat the United States in the final. Nobody expected them to win. It was incredible. Sawa was the captain and a hero, and that team inspired me and motivated to come back to hockey and continue my dream. She was the same age as me, and that meant a lot to me. I believed I could still play.”
Indeed, Homare Sawa led the tournament with five goals and scored the tying goal in extra time of the final to make it 2-2. Japan then won in the shootout, 3-1.
“As well, there was the earthquake that March, which was the strongest ever in Japan. About 20,000 people were killed. It was a tragic event in our country and made me think I should do what I love to do.”
And so began the second part of Kubo’s career. She has been with the team for the last decade, helping the team win games with her offensive talents but also developing players through her leadership. And in 2014, and again in 2018, she realized her teenage dreams by playing in the Olympics. She has played in six Women’s Worlds at the top level as well. And when she looks back from 1999 to today, she is shocked.
“The national program is so much better now,” she enthused. “There is a lot of focus not only on practising but on fitness and conditioning, using weights and the gym to train harder. It’s much better than when I first started out.”
But Kubo is 38, not 28, and her focus is on the near future, not the distant.
“At the moment I’m focusing on playing in Beijing but after that I don’t know. I think about my age as well so I’m really only focused on the World Championship now and the Olympics. After that, we’ll see.”
When she returned to the game in 2011, Kubo wanted a fresh start, so when the trainers gave her number 21, a number she had never worn, she accepted it.
“Number 21 was given to me, but I’ve had it so long it feels as though people think of me when they see that number, so I’m happy to wear it now whenever I play. Now, number 21 is Hanae!”
Indeed, Hanae Kubo is Number 21 in your program – and Number 1 in your hearts.