Carla MacLeod - Tuesday Dec. 31, 2013 12:19

Japanese hockey women officially heading to Sochi

Carla MacLeod views Olympic qualification her ‘greatest achievement’

Assistant Japanese women’s hockey coach Carla MacLeod, centre, takes her team our for a snowball fight to relieve nerves during the Olympic qualifying tournament. The move worked as Japan earned its first Olympic berth. (Photo courtesy Carla MacLeod)

I’ll be honest, prior to coaching Team Japan I had no idea how the “Olympic qualifier” worked in my sport. Playing for Team Canada, the question wasn’t if the team would make the Olympics, it was whether or not I could make the team to go to the Olympics.

The top 5 ranked teams in the world and the host were in. So there were two spots up for grabs. Two tournaments, with four teams at each event, were held over the same week this past February. The process was simple, play three round-robin games and at the end, the team with the most points would punch their ticket to the Sochi Games.

We were set to play seventh-ranked Slovakia, No. 10 Norway, as well as 19th-ranked Denmark. We were the third seed in our tournament, ranked 11th in the world.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, the hockey component of the Japanese game wasn’t my major concern. I knew we had prepared for every situation, and confident that if we executed we would compete with anyone. Where the question mark remained was in our mental strength and our ability to perform under pressure.

Ask any athlete and they will say the best team builder is a good night on the town with your teammates. And although this wasn’t an option at this point in the journey, I borrowed from the idea and introduced Team Japan to Flip Cup. Having attended the University of Wisconsin, I was confident in my ability to demonstrate the finer skills of Flip Cup. We chose to make this event a hydration game by using water, but the game was a huge hit, filled with tons of laughs.

I knew Team Nerves was going to be our biggest opponent at the qualifier, and the morning of our first game it made it’s presence known in a big way. I was walking through the hallway and could absolutely feel the tension in the air. The girls’ fear was growing as every second ticked by. I knew Team Nerves would be our demise. So I made an audible and told the girls to grab their mitts and we were going outside to play in the snow.

Snowball fight eases nerves

The players followed me outside where we had just had the most beautiful, perfect snow storm that produced clouds of snow on the ground. We started with a snowball fight, me versus the girls of course and it quickly moved to a pushing match into the piles of soft, deep snow.

The smiles and laughs were exactly how we needed to play the game and it was from that moment that our key word for the tournament took hold. Every game I told the girls to play with a “smile.”

We obviously won that tournament (I wouldn't be blogging here otherwise) and I wish I could describe the feeling of standing on the bench watching this group of gals that wanted so desperately to become Olympians, yet really weren’t certain they were capable of achieving it, celebrate at the buzzer! All I will say is that moment is my greatest hockey achievement. I’ve never been more excited or more proud.

And now here we are, just under 40 days until my girls get to live out their childhood dream of representing Japan at the biggest sporting event in the world. We have worked our butts off this year to prepare for the Games and we’re not done yet. I will take you along the journey of our final prep and our experience in Sochi.

Go Red and White.

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