Canadian hockey player Carla MacLeod plans to be at the 2014 Winter Olympics a year from now, but behind Japan’s bench.
The defenceman from Calgary won women’s hockey gold in 2006 and 2010 before retiring from the Canadian team.
Her international hockey career has continued, however, as an assistant coach of Japan’s women’s team.
Japan earned their berth to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, by winning a qualifying tournament in Slovakia last week.
“We’re in the midst of working out the details, but yeah, I’ll be with them in Sochi,” MacLeod says. “I never thought for one minute I’d be in Sochi, until I got this Japanese job and I thought ’maybe we can get there.’
“I guess any time you coach a team you become so attached to them. I just want to be there to hopefully help them and achieve their dream even further.”
The Japanese women will play hockey in the Winter Olympics for the first time since they were the host team in 1998.
They join defending champion Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Russia, Germany and Switzerland in the field.
MacLeod, 30, likely won’t coach against her country in Sochi because Japan and Canada aren’t in the same pool.
“Even just to watch around the village and know the crew is there, my friends are there, there’s actually something very comforting in that,” she says. “Everyone has been so supportive of me in this venture.”
MacLeod had 12 goals and 27 assists in 79 games for Canada during her career, which also included a world championship in 2007.
The five-foot-four, 133-pound defender was a smart distributor of the puck at both ends of the ice and created offence from the back end.
MacLeod says she’s travelled to Japan 10 times since that country’s hockey federation hired her a year ago.
Her contract was for a year with the understanding that if Japan qualified for Sochi, she would continue with the program.
“The Japanese Ice Hockey Federation were looking at their situation very clearly,” she explains. “Their men were ranked 22nd in the world and their women were ranked 11th. If they wanted to make the Olympics, they knew their best odds were with the women’s team.”
“They put money into the women’s program. A part of that was finding a female coach they thought could help their group and the second piece was ensuring we had a camp every month.”
MacLeod is the only female on Japan’s coaching staff that includes head coach Yuji Iizuka and assistant Yoshifumi Fujisawa. The team physiotherapist was also MacLeod’s translator.
“These guys were very, very accepting and open to having me there and allowing my input to be heard,” she says. “I was arrogant as a player and I never gave these countries the credit they deserved as far as the effort these players are putting in. Their dreams are the same as ours. They’re working just as hard. They just don’t have the same level of game that we do here.
“Coaching is one of the biggest areas where we can help these programs. The players and most of the coaches are sponges and want to learn and improve.”
MacLeod estimates she’s picked up about 30 Japanese words. She wants to take Japanese lessons in Calgary so she can communicate more with her players heading into Sochi.
In addition to helping with on-ice systems, MacLeod developed a strength-training program for the Japanese women, who are fast and fit, but not big and strong.
“Their skill set was impressive. Their speed was incredible. Their tenacity, they wanted to do it right,” she says. “They just didn’t have the hockey sense. They didn’t understand how to use their tools to be as effective as they could be.
“That’s where I stepped in. I recommended a different forecheck or a different defensive zone coverage where we could be more aggressive because speed was our biggest attribute.”
Japan played an aggressive forecheck and penalty kill during the qualifying tournament.
They fell behind 3-0 to Norway in their opening game, but fought back to win 4-3. Japan then lost 1-0 in a shootout to host Slovakia before beating Denmark 5-0.
“It’s important to realize too that they’re not accustomed to winning,” MacLeod says. “A part of the process when I went over was to instill the belief in them and hopefully the self-confidence in them that they deserved to win and they can win.
“Heading into this tournament, we’d spent a lot of time on that and hired a mental coach as well. For them to be down 3-0 and never give up, that’s huge.”
She’ll join Japan for the Division 1 women’s world championship in Noray in April. Canada hosts the top-tier women’s world championship April 2-9 in Ottawa.
MacLeod is also an assistant coach of the Mount Royal University women’s hockey team in Calgary as well as an employee of RBC in their Olympic ambassadors program.
Juggling those jobs and multiple trips to a country in a time zone 16 hours ahead is taxing.
“It’s been a bit of a doozy, but it’s totally worth it,” MacLeod says. “It is a challenge for sure for me.”