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ICE HOCKEY | Smile Japan Set for World Championships as Beijing Olympics Loom

Coach Yuji Iizuka’s squad will be looking to improve on its eighth-place finish at the 2019 worlds in Finland, where it lost to the U.S. 4-0 in the quarterfinals.

Jack Gallagher

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The Japan women's ice hockey national team (Japan Ice Hockey Federation)

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The long-delayed Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship got underway in Calgary, Alberta, on Friday, August 20 with the defending champion United States opening with a 3-0 victory over Switzerland in Group A.

Smile Japan, which is ranked sixth in the world, will play its first game on Saturday, August 21 against Denmark in Group B. Japan is led by goalie Nana Fujimoto, forwards Chiho Osawa and Rui Ukita and defender Akane Hosoyamada.

The 10-team world championships was originally scheduled to be held last April in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia, but was postponed due to the pandemic. The tournament was rescheduled for April of this year, then pushed back to May, before being moved to August over concerns about COVID-19.

Coach Yuji Iizuka’s squad will be looking to improve on its eighth-place finish at the 2019 worlds in Finland, where it lost to the U.S. 4-0 in the quarterfinals. Smile Japan came in sixth at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, winning two games (over South Korea and Sweden) there.

After taking on the Danes, Japan will battle the Czech Republic (August 23), Hungary (August 24) and Germany (August 26) while hoping to again earn a place in the quarterfinals. Japan’s journey to the worlds was a difficult one, as the team faced a five-day quarantine at its hotel in Canada before holding its first practice on August 16.

The team found its pace quickly, however, winning its warmup game 4-0 against Hungary on Wednesday, August 18 in Calgary.

The tournament will be a homecoming for Hosoyamada, who was born in Banff, Alberta, some 125 kilometers to the west of Calgary. She played collegiately at Syracuse University.

“It’s been a long time since an international competition, but I want to believe in ourselves and put out the best of Japan now, and leave good results that will lead to the Beijing Olympics,” Hosoyamada said earlier this week on the team’s Facebook page.

Fujimoto, who is considered one of the top goalies in the world, is looking forward to the tournament as a measuring stick to see where Japan stands ahead of next year’s Winter Games.

“This tournament is about a half year before the Beijing Olympics, so we will be able to grasp the distance between ourselves and the world and lead to the next match, so we can step up,” Fujimoto stated, also on Facebook.

Osawa, one of Japan’s top scorers, discussed her feelings about the team’s time in quarantine in Canada.

“During the quarantine period, the loneliness of not being able to meet my teammates has deepened my teamwork, so I would like to do my best to bring a lot of smiles to the Japanese people,” Osawa commented.

Ukita admitted to having some jitters due to the long gap in international play for Smile Japan.

“I’m a little nervous because this will be our first international event in a while, but I will do my best until the end,” Ukita said.

Host Canada is the tournament’s co-favorite along with the U.S. The two played an epic overtime final in Pyeongchang that the U.S. won 3-2 in a dramatic shootout. 

The preliminary-round games in Calgary will be held without spectators, though organizers hope that fans may be able to attend from the quarterfinals on.

Author: Jack Gallagher

The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world’s foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, here, and find him on Twitter @sportsjapan.

Jack Gallagher is an award-winning sports writer who has worked in Japan for 25 years. He has covered figure skating at several Olympics and is considered one of the top skating writers in the world. He is the managing editor of jackfigure.com and the host of the popular bilingual Ice Time Podcast. Gallagher has written about a wide variety of sports in his career. A graduate of the University of Southern California, he was an executive in the NBA and NFL Europe before moving to Japan in 1994.