All Smiles
by Erin Brown|10 JAN 2023
Nicknamed  "Smile Japan," the Japanese have returned to the top division for the first time since 2019.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
It can be hard for the Japanese U18 women’s hockey team to show off the their true identity in the pandemic era.

With faces hidden behind masks, players on the team nicknamed “Smile Japan” still give off a glow and show laughter can be an equally good substitute.

When the masks are off and they are on the ice, though, smiles have been on display as their country is once again playing top-division games after a three-year absence.

"Usually, we (don't get to) play against other countries," forward Aoi Sawada said. "I'm so excited about that."

Getting here proved a challenge in itself. First, the team needed to return to the top division. From 2016 to 2020, the Japanese followed a familiar pattern, rebounding with a promotion from Division IA the year after dropping down.

It was most heartbreaking when they hosted the 2019 event on home ice in Obihiro and were relegated following an eighth-place finish. In 2020, the down-and-up streak broke when Germany scored with less than six minutes to play in the gold-medal game, a 2-1 loss.

Japan returned with a vengeance when play resumed in 2022 following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese won all four games and outscored opponents, 26-0. They produced the top four scorers of the tournament and combined for 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists). While Japan's goaltenders were perfect, the defense also contributed signifcantly, limiting opponents to just 42 shots. Every other team allowed at least 120.

With a ticket to Ostersund punched for 2023, Japan's next hurdle involved actually getting here. The players estimate their travel took 20 hours. The team departed Tokyo for connections in Dubai and Stockholm before finally landing in Ostersund on January 1.

"It was so hard, oh my goodness," Sawada said. "We were a bit tired. The next day we practiced and were kind of fine."

With a team average height of 5-foot-3 (1.61m), the Japanese are the smallest at this year's tournament. In contrast, defending gold medalist Canada is the tallest at 5-foot-8 (1.72m). But where Japan lacks size, they are exceptionally fast, skilled and rely on a smart, crisp passing game.

"Japanese players are not that big, but we have speed," Kika Terauchi said.

Added Sawada: "We have to win 1-on-1s."

With two losses in two games, the results have not been as the team had hoped. To Japan's credit, its contests came against ascendent Slovakian and Czech teams. Still, the experience has proved invaluable.

"I'm one of the youngest and I wasn't really confident in my play and everything," said Terauchi, who is one of three players born in 2008 on Japan's roster. "But all the older players kind of helped me out. I've kind of gotten more confident in my play."

Japan can earn its first top-division win since 2019 on Wednesday against Switzerland, a team it has faced more than any other at this level. The Swiss lead the all-time series 9-1, though five meetings have been decided by one goal and two games by penalty shots.

"Yesterday and in the first game, we did not score many goals," Sawada said. "So (against Switzerland), we'd like to get more."

The long-term hope of many U18 players is to move up to the senior team. As they enter the primes of their careers in the late 2020s and early 2030s, it is possible they could be playing Olympic contests before home fans.

Although the International Olympic Committee has yet to decide on a site for the 2030 Winter Olympic Games, Sapporo, host of the 1972 Winter Olympics, has submitted a bid to host the games again. The city is located on the northernmost island of Hokkaido, where most of these players' Women's Japan Ice Hockey League teams are located.

"We don't really get fans here when we play," Sophia Odermatt said. "The stands would be full with Japanese fans. I think would be cool if there were a lot of Japanese fans."

And many smiles, too.