It did so after a great international season. The Japanese finished the Women’s Worlds with a 2-2 record in the preliminary round after wins against France and Sweden and managed to keep the score against first-ranked United States in the quarter-finals surprisingly low for a while before losing 4-0. Currently sixth in the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Ranking, the Japanese have a realistic chance to qualify directly for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in neighbouring China if they can defend the spot against nations like the Czech Republic and Germany.
70 female players, mostly in junior age but overall between 10 and 47 years of age, joined the event in Hachinohe, also known as home of the Asia League’s Tohoku Free Blades.
With 1,472 female players registered Japan has the largest women’s ice hockey program in Asia, same as on the men’s side. The country has a long history in international ice hockey dating back to 1930 when Japan joined the IIHF and the men’s team played its first World Championship. Japan was also part of the first big international events in women’s hockey. The country played at the inaugural Women’s Worlds in 1990 and as host at the first Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament in Nagano 1998. Both times it lost all games but has gradually improved after making women’s ice hockey better known after the Olympics on home ice. Since 2014 the team called “Smile Japan” has been playing among the elite nations in four out of five years and will continue to do so at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Canada.
“The World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend is a part of our promotional activities especially for women's market and we also are happy to work with IIHF,” said Toshi Takahashi of the Japan Ice Hockey Federation. “This is a great opportunity to facing Smile Japan players. The junior players asked any kind of question directly to the experienced player such as about skills, feeling, motivation, why, how, what, and so on.”
Also parents had the opportunity to ask questions and get to know more about hockey players and how to support their children.
“This is also the meaning of having this event – not only for the players but also for parents to understand the ice hockey activities and the federation’s philosophy,” one of the organizers said. “Our goal is to expand the women’s hockey market. We need more registered players, it needs to be more interesting. Of course we need more influence based on good result and brightness on the international stage.”
Three Japanese national team players were on-site to help including Hanae Kubo and Hachinohe natives Ami Nakamura and Fumika Sasano as well as head coach Yuji Iizuka, goalie coach Masahito Haruna and physio Tsutomu Wako.
For the event at the Technol Ice Park the JIHF also found a sponsor with the Taiyo Life Insurance Company.
All in all the event took over three hours starting with the registration at 11:00. The participants were greeted and introduced to the coaches before starting an off-ice program with the Olympians and talked about dreams.
The longest part was of course an ice session of about one-and-a-half hours focusing on different skills followed by a mini game. In the end it was time for a photo session and for the participants to get certificates.
“I enjoyed very much to have played with Smile Japan women’s national team players. I wish to be a Smile Japan player in the future,” one of the girls said.
“I will make a dream, convert the dream to be a target and then make it reality as I learned today,” another participant said while her colleague mentioned that learning the shooting skills was new for her.
Meeting and playing with their heroes was already a dream come true for many girls but more may come. For the participants and the community it was a great opportunity to face and spend time together with the Olympians who played in PyeongChang 2018 where Japan had its best performance so far and finished in sixth place. Something “Smile Japan” hopes to repeat in the future. Maybe with upcoming players who saw their idols in Hachinohe this weekend.