As the Japanese Women’s National Team are beginning preparations to qualify for the upcoming Winter Games, Hakucho Oji Ice Arena in the city of Tomakomai, Japan served as the backdrop for a two-game exhibition series against the Calgary Inferno to close out the month of January. Of note, it marked the second straight season that Japan hosted a professional women’s hockey team from North America. Back in December 2015, the NWHL’s New York Riveters, which saw Nana Fujimoto on their roster made the trip across the Pacific for a two-game friendly.
During the 2015-16 season, it was not just Fujimoto who made an impression in North America. Sena Suzuki, who competed with the Toronto Furies, made history as the first player born in Japan to participate in the CWHL All-Star Game. In addition, Kanae Aoki and Aina Takeuchi became the first players from Japan to win the Clarkson Cup, competing with the Calgary Inferno. In this game, all the aforementioned players, along with Inferno rookie Akane Hosoyamada were dressed for their homeland.
Pregame ceremonies set the tone for an event built on sportsmanship and goodwill as both teams exchanged gifts and signing jerseys, along with the Inferno providing Japan with a “lucky loonie”, a symbol of good luck first made legendary by Trent Evans at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games. The opportunity for a friendly with Japan served as a team building experience for the Inferno while enjoying the sites in both Tokyo and Tomakomai. As a side note, Inferno head coach Scott Reid serve as the goaltending coach for the Japanese national women’s team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
With Clarkson Cup MVP Delayne Brian between the pipes for the Inferno, she would play valiantly, facing 13 shots in the first allowing a power play goal by Ayaka Toko in the first period. Jet lag certainly appeared to be a factor for the Inferno, called for three penalties in the opening period.
At the 14:38 mark of the second stanza, Haruna Yoneyama and Tomomi Iwahara contributed assists on a goal scored by Shoko Ono, extending their lead to 2 goals. The Inferno would provide a much better showing in the second, peppering Japan with 14 shots on goal. Their efforts would pay off in the third period as Louise Warren (who works in law enforcement) spoiled Fujimoto’s bid for a shutout in exciting fashion. Scoring while her knees, she received a backhand pass from Bailey Bram, whose forechecking nullified numerous scoring opportunities for Japan. Despite trimming Japan’s lead, the Inferno were unable to score again. Instead, it was Japan who would score, denying Brian and her teammates the opening win. 3-1 final
The bookend match saw several skaters for the Inferno find their scoring touch, supplying the offensive firepower needed to prevail. Such heroics were supplied by Iya Gavrilova, who is also a member of Russia’s national team. With the Inferno enjoying a 5-on-3 power-play, which saw Mika Hori serve a penalty for kneeing while Ayaka Toko was called for hooking, Gavrilova exploited the opportunity, providing the Inferno with its first lead of the series. Assists were credited to Meaghan Mikkelson and Jillian Saulnier, who have suited up for the Canadian national team multiple times in their distinguished careers.
Gavrilova maintained the hot hand in the first period, scoring on Fujimoto once again. This time at the 15:13 mark of the first period, Japan experienced a significant setback early in the game. Captain Brianne Jenner would assist on Gavrilova’s second goal of the game, as the period expired with the 2-0 advantage in favor of the defneindg Clarkson Cup champions, as Japan sputtered on offense with only four shots on rookie sensation Emerance Maschmeyer.
Sarah Davis, the pride of Paradise, Newfoundland, provided the Inferno with a three-goal cushion, putting the puck through the five hole at 6:57 of the second period, as Jessica Campbell earned the assist. Fujimoto remained composed, working tirelessly to prevent the Inferno from capitalizing on a pair of power play opportunities. At the 9:27 mark, Rui Ukita was called for tripping, while Takeuchi served a penalty for cross-checking less than three minutes later.
Midway through the second period, Genevieve Lacasse, the CWHL’s wins leader relieved Emerance Maschmeyer, taking over for the remainder of the game. Guarding the Inferno crease, the possibility of a shared shutout between the two presented a rare opportunity.
Japan would quickly regroup, with Ami Nakamura playing the role of spoiler, snapping the shutout bid at 2:15 in the third period, scoring through the five hole. For a brief moment, hope was restored, a comeback was possible. Before the three minute mark, Naho Terashima would be called for hooking, diminishing any confidence as Davis found the back of the net on the power play.
Emulating Gavbrilova’s performance with her own two goal effort, Davis redirected a wrist-shot from Blayre Turnbull, who logged the game-winning goal in the 2016 Clarkson Cup finals. With another two penalties called against Japan later in the game, any attempt at a comeback was futile as the Inferno emerged triumphant by a 4-1 mark.
For her efforts, Davis was recognized as the Player of the Game, while teammate Gavrilova earned the Media Award for Outstanding Play. The Inferno’s next game sees them back on home ice hosting the last place Boston Blades from February 4-5. As a side note, the February 4th contest shall be in support of You Can Play, which will see the Inferno grace the ice with rainbow colored jerseys.
Currently seventh in the IIHF women’s rankings, Japan will look to secure a berth in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea when they host a qualification tournament from Feb. 9-12. They’ll face off against Germany, Austria and France and the top team will earn a spot to compete at the Games.
Of note, the Japanese national women’s team competed in women’s ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and enjoy a respectable world ranking of seventh. Japan holds a special place in the history of women’s hockey, as the city of Nagano served as host for the 1998 Winter Games, the site for the first-ever women’s ice hockey tournament at the Games. With the upcoming 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea serving as the 20th anniversary of Nagano, Japan is eager to return to such a stage.
In order to attain their goals, Japan must first emerge triumphant in a qualification tournament from February 9-12, 2017, which shall see them take on the likes of Germany, Austria and France. Being hosted in Japan, the national team hopes to capitalize on home ice advantage and vanquish their ambitious opponents, securing the final spot in the Games.