The Shiga Show
by Andrew Podnieks|30 AUG 2022
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Akane Shiga is only 21 years old, but she may be the best thing to happen to the Japanese women’s program since, well, ever. The team has scored only four goals so far in Herning, and Shiga has been in on all of them, scoring three and setting up the fourth, scored by her sister Aoi.

At last year’s Women’s Worlds, she was sensational in helping the team advance to the quarter-finals. She scored the opening goal against Hungary in a critical 4-1 win. She scored both goals against the United States in a 10-2 loss, and she scored the game-winning goal against Czechia. She was only 20 at the time but it portended things to come. 

“She was our best scorer last year in Calgary,” coach Yuji Iizuka said. “Especially against the USA when she scored two goals. The players expect her to score now. She’s a very important part of the team’s success, and that also gives her confidence.”

“I try to help the team by scoring goals. It's very important for the team to succeed,” Shiga said yesterday, after scoring twice and adding an assist in a 9-3 loss to Finland. “I'm happy to score any way. Sometimes I like to shoot, sometimes I will move in closer and try to deke.”

Credit where credit is due. Iizuka was coaching Shiga at the 2019 U18 Women’s Worlds when he decided to move the defender up. She skated too well, handled the puck too well, had too good a shot, and had a nose for the net that was way too valuable to be positioned back at the blue line.

“The head coach asked me to move from defence to forward,” Shiga concurred. “He felt I had the ability to score goals, and that was more important because we have always had trouble scoring.”

“Her presence on the team is doubly important because our teams have always had trouble scoring, so to find someone who can put the puck in the net is very important to our success, both today and for the future,” Iizuka emphasized. “We expect her to score and hope she can keep doing that for many years to come.”

Akane plays with her sister, Aoi, who is two years older. The two first started skating together when Akane was six. They grew up in Hokkaido, the northern island and hockey hotbed of Japan, but Akane got her greatest inspiration from another source.

“I remember the 2014 Olympics in Sochi,” she explained. “I was 13 and following the national team, and I was so excited they were playing at the Olympics that I started to dream about playing for the national team myself. One of the players, number 11, Yurie Adachi, I really admired. I liked how she played, and she was one of the reasons I wanted to keep playing. That's why I wear number 11 myself, because of her.”

Iizuka points out that part of Akane’s success is her sister’s presence, and that families play a key role within the women’s senior program. “We actually have three sister combinations in our program – Shiga, Toko, and Yamashita,” he continued. “They are familiar with each other, of course, and this makes for a good relationship among the players within the team.”

Currently a university student studying to be a nutritionist, Shiga looks back to her brief career which includes two U18s, now three Women’s Worlds, and the 2022 Olympics, and chooses a highlight from her career so far.

“It wasn't my first goal – but it feels like my first goal – with the national team,” she explained. “It was in a game against Hungary in Calgary last year at the Women's World Championship. That was an important goal. We won the game, 4-1, and qualified for the quarter-finals.”

And since she is only 21 and has, hopefully, many years with the national team still to enjoy, Shiga reveals what her dream is. “I want to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. Any medal. But Japan has never won a medal in hockey at the Olympics, so I would like to help our team be the first.”

Lofty ambitions, but truth be told, if Japan will ever reach the podium, it is almost certainly a much greater possibility with Akane Shiga in the line-up than not.