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Sena Suzuki, left, practices with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League on Jan. 6. Suzuki was selected alongside many of the league’s big-name players for the all-star game on Jan. 23. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)
Sena Suzuki, left, practices with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League on Jan. 6. Suzuki was selected alongside many of the league’s big-name players for the all-star game on Jan. 23. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)

CWHL’s Japanese skaters driven by passion for Olympic hockey podium Add to ...

Sena Suzuki knew few people in Canada and spoke very little English when she moved from Japan six months ago. Now, she’s having the time of her life.

The defenceman who competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics is one of four Japanese women playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League this season, a five-team league home to many Canadian and American Olympic medalists. Suzuki is so passionate about trying to help Japan reach the Olympic podium that she has moved to Toronto to immerse herself in the North American game.

A large gap in skill has always existed between the North American superpowers and the rest of the world in women’s hockey. Finland, Sweden, Russia and Switzerland have typically sat a rung below those two giants, with Japan a little further down still. These Japanese players have come to Canada to skate next to the best.

The women expressed interest in the CWHL, and the league was keen on fresh talent and a way to build the game globally. Suzuki was drafted by the Toronto Furies, along with forward Tomomi Kurata, formerly of Japan’s Under-18 program. The Calgary Inferno took two of Suzuki’s Olympic teammates – defenders Kanae Aoki and Aina Takeuchi, the latter in her second CWHL season.

Women’s hockey has been part of the Winter Olympics for five Games now, and Japan only competed in two of those. They had a host nation spot in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and got in through the qualifying tournament for Sochi. Japan finished last of the eight teams at the 2014 Olympics.

In the CWHL, the Japanese athletes play with Canadian Olympic gold medalists such as Natalie Spooner, Hayley Wickenheiser and Meaghan Mikkelson. While most of these Japanese players are fast and fit, their strength and physicality are still behind the North Americans.

“I’m enjoying hockey more than ever, and the level is much higher than club hockey in Japan,” Suzuki said through a translator. “I learn Spooner’s habits, skills and techniques. She teaches me English, and I teach her Japanese. Canadians are very fun and their hockey is so creative. In Japan, the coach tells the player what to do; but here the players discuss with the coach what they think, and they have more leadership. In Japan it’s very serious, but Canadians enjoy hockey like a kid while still improving at the same time. The women here are very strong, very physical and very good.”

The four Japanese women are the only players from outside North America this season, but in the past, the CWHL has had players from Sweden, Switzerland, China, Austria and the Czech Republic. According to the IIHF, there are 19,287 registered hockey players in Japan, and 2,219 of them are female. Canada has 721,504 registered players, 86,612 of them female. It’s not uncommon for a Japanese club team to include female players ranging in age from 12 to 30.

“We were willing to take a chance on these players, because we knew they would work hard and play any role we asked of them,” Furies coach Sommer West said.

“Sena has become a top three defenceman for us. She used to run every play just exactly as I diagrammed it, because she’s used to a safer, more structured style, but now her offensive side is really emerging. If there’s open ice – go. I’d love to see more international players in the CWHL, because the showcase we could provide if we had all the world’s best female players could be out of this world.”

A handful of other Japanese national team players have taken the leap to play in North America – one at the Ontario Hockey Academy, another at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Goaltender Nana Fujimoto is playing for the New York Riveters from a league that rivals the CWHL – the four-team U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League. It’s a new pro outfit that, unlike the CWHL, is paying its players.

Carla MacLeod, a two-time Canadian Olympic defenceman who was Japan’s assistant coach at the 2014 Olympics, helped many of the Japanese players make connections abroad.

“I can’t tell you how many Japanese news cameras were at their practices after these girls qualified for Sochi – it was a big deal over there at the time,” MacLeod said. “The players were disappointed to finish last, but you could tell they got a taste of what they really wanted – to make the podium. A lot of them started asking me what was possible in North America.”

The Japanese players don’t have jobs in Canada – they’re focused on hockey. The CWHL pays their hockey-related expenses and helps them with the logistics of housing and translators, but the players pay their own living expenses and travel to and from Japan.

“My biggest challenge here is speaking English,” Takeuchi said in an e-mail interview from Calgary. “I learned English in junior high school and high school, but I didn’t have the opportunity to speak English in Japan.”

When asked, both the Japanese and Canadian players share stories of their new friendships. The Japanese tell of being invited to Thanksgiving dinners or to watch curling or Toronto Blue Jays games on TV. The Canadians tell of the green tea cookies shared as gifts or the respectful bows offered in conversation.

“I have so much respect for them because of their dedication and everything they gave up back home in Japan to come train here,” Mikkelson said by phone from Calgary. “Their discipline is tremendous, and it’s been a great experience for us as well as them. It’s not just about building our league; it’s also about doing whatever we can to help build women’s hockey around the world.”

Suzuki was selected alongside many of the league’s big-name players for the CWHL all-star game on Jan. 23 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

“My coaches in Japan are happy that I’m playing here; they say it’s very good,” Suzuki said. “When we come back to Japan, we hope we can help other Japanese players.”

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