Mike Brophy - Thursday Nov. 21, 2013 12:44 ET

Carla MacLeod living coaching dream in Japan

Former Canadian hockey player perfect fit for Japanese game

Carla MacLeod is now behind the bench of Japan's national team, helping them to an Olympic berth. (Sei Uchigasaki/

There was never any doubt in Carla MacLeod’s mind that one day she would coach hockey. She just never dreamed it would be in Japan.

“When I was playing a lot of my teammates realized I had a passion for coaching,” said the 31-year-old from Spruce Grove, Alta., who is an assistant coach with the Japanese national women’s hockey team. “I was the nerd that would sit at a team meal and think about a faceoff play we could try. I always liked thinking the game.”

MacLeod, who played defence, won two Olympic gold medals with Canada in 2006 in Torino, Italy and 2010 in Vancouver. Two years ago, following up on an International Ice Hockey Federation initiative that sought North American hockey players to volunteer with other nations to teach the finer points of the game, MacLeod joined the Japanese team as a volunteer coach. 

Team Canada general manager Melody Davidson recommended her. MacLeod has since been hired as an assistant coach with Team Japan, responsible for organizing practices and helping determine the style of game the team will play.

She’ll be on the bench in Sochi as Japan qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1998, when it finished in sixth place.

“If you asked me four years ago what I’d be doing now I certainly wouldn’t have said flying to Japan every month,” MacLeod said. “It has been really neat to go over there and experience the culture and be able to understand Japan.”

Japan Turns to Canada

After Japan failed to qualify for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Mark Mahon – a Canadian and head coach of the Japanese men’s Olympic hockey team – suggested the women’s team turn to Canada for some coaching help. 

Davidson felt MacLeod would be perfect for the task.

“Mel coached me for so long – she first coached me when I was 12 – she always knew I’d turn into a coach.” MacLeod said. “I was just that kind of a player. As soon as I retired after the Vancouver Olympics, I began coaching at Mount Royal University in Calgary as an assistant. Once I got over to Japan I knew this was something I wanted to do."

Admittedly, MacLeod was not a world traveller before embarking on the assignment, never having been to a large metropolis before taking the 10.5 hour flight and landing in Tokyo.“To just stand there and hear the buzz of the train station was surreal,” MacLeod said. “Also, to be a visible minority was a new experience.”

Initially MacLeod observed the players and coaching staff at practice on her first two trips to Japan, and later joined the team on the bench for the world championship tournament, but again she offered little input. Eventually she took on a more hands-on approach drawing on the skill and passion for the sport that helped her become a top flight defender in North America.

“I wanted to see what they were accustomed to and how the head coach Ilzuma Yuji handled things,” MacLeod said. 

“Yuji has been fantastic in allowing me to get my message through to the players. The coolest thing about working with this group is they are so coachable. They want to learn. When I introduce them to something new they’re eager to try it. Whether or not they are able to execute it right away or not, I never doubt their desire.”

Physical play a big challenge

MacLeod said her biggest challenge, aside from the language barrier, is to get the Japanese to play a more aggressive style. Because the Japanese players are smaller than most of their competition, she feels the referees may allow them to get away with a little more than the typical incidental contact that is allowed in women’s hockey. 

Typically the Japanese are quite fast, but physical play doesn't come naturally to them. In an effort to get them thinking differently, MacLeod had the players do plenty of 1-on-1 drills that forced them to engage physically. 

She also lined up two games against boys’ high school team in late August.

Another challenge, MacLeod said, is getting the players to understand they actually have a right to win. When the Japanese compete against the top teams in the world, they expect to lose and when they do, it’s no big deal.

“I asked them last year how many of them thought we could win the Olympic qualifying tournament and I’m not kidding, not one player put their hand up," MacLeod said. "I thought, ‘oh boy!’ They weren’t used to winning. They didn’t believe they deserved to win."

So far MacLeod’s hard work and input have paid off. Japan qualified for the 2014 Olympic Games by placing first in a four-team tournament last winter. A third trip to the Olympics, this time as a coach, has MacLeod pumped.

“I can tell you I enjoy coaching more than I ever did playing,” she said. “I absolutely love it whether it’s at Mount Royal in Calgary or in Japan. When we won the last game of the Olympic qualifier and we knew we were going, I’ve never felt such pride."

And who knows, the best may be yet to come.

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