As the borders continue to evaporate in the growing game of international women’s ice hockey, gradually extending its global reach to all corners of the globe, a significant step in its evolutionary development involves a series of international exhibition matches. Traditionally, such events consisted of national teams visiting North America and competing against clubs in Canadian Interuniversity Sport and the NCAA.
With the professional game making significant inroads, it adds an entirely compelling new level of competition pushing the quality of play to unprecedented levels. A generation ago, the NHL hosted not only the Soviet National Team in an All-Star setting (Rendez-Vous 87), but various of Russia’s most formidable club teams, including the Red Army and Moscow Dynamo would visit NHL venues in 1990. To see the women of professional hockey follow in their footsteps and engage in such events only adds luster to a sport rapidly gaining in popularity and fan following.
For two straight seasons, the formidable Japanese national women’s team has welcomes a pair of professional teams, graciously serving as host. Last season saw the New York Riveters become the first professional women’s ice hockey team to visit Japan. The two-game friendly provided high emotion on both sides as goaltender Nana Fujimoto, who was a rookie with the Riveters that season, stood between the pipes in one game for each team.
This season, the defending Clarkson Cup champion Calgary Inferno made the sojourn, becoming the first CWHL team to compete in a contest outside North America. This would prove to be a most fitting chapter in Inferno lore, as the accomplished team already holds a profound and historic connection to the rapidly improving and highly competitive hockey nation.
During the magical run towards the Clarkson Cup last season, the Inferno featured a pair of competitors form the Japanese national team. Both in their debut seasons with the Inferno, Kanea Aoki and Aina Takeuchi became the first players from Japan to hoist the coveted Cup.
In addition, said season also saw Sena Suzuki, a first-year player with the Toronto Furies become the first Japanese-born player to appear in the CWHL All-Star Game. Of note, Inferno head coach Scott Reid served as the goaltending coach for Team Japan in their appearance at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, which also included fellow Albertan Carla McLeod as a member of the coaching staff.
As one of the members of the Clarkson Cup championship team, Jacquie Pierri, whose efforts with the Inferno also included helping to organize a fund raiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, believes strongly in fostering ties of friendship and unity on the team. Akin to her great efforts for the fund raiser, she reflected on the experience in Japan as one that helped bring the team closer together, while obtaining a series of invaluable experiences by exploring a new culture,
“It was an untouchable team building experience for us. You cannot beat exploring Tokyo and trying to figure out that complex subway system together. I think we packed as much as was physically possible into our one day of sightseeing. Hopefully, the bonding can help carry us through the remainder of the season and to our final goal, a repeat title. There is lots of work left to do.
Taking into account that the Inferno feature a collection of players from four different countries (Canada, Japan, Russia, US), highlighted by several Canadian national team members, this assortment of accomplished talent was determined to prove its status as one of the world’s finest club teams.
Among this group of players was first-year player Iya Gavrilova. A member of Russia’s national team, Gavrilova’s hockey resume includes gold at the Winter Universiade, a bronze medal at the IIHF Women’s Worlds, the Canada West scoring title, and an appearance on home soil at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. By the end of her inaugural season with the Inferno, she would rank ninth in league scoring. The chance to play in Japan added another memorable moment to her international career.
“It was an amazing experience. During the season I don’t get to play on the international level as much as I used to so it was really fun to get to play those games against team Japan. I’m so thankful for Japan Ice Hockey Federation for bringing us all the way to Japan and hosting this unique series.”
With current Inferno members Takeuchi and Akana Hosoyamada suiting up for Team Japan in this two-game set, it proved to be a remarkable test for both teams. After Japan opened the series with a 3-1 win, the Inferno bounced back in the second game on the strength of the scoring proficiency of Blayre Turnbull and Iya Gavrilova, complemented by the goaltending duo of Emerance Maschmeyer and Genevieve Lacasse. Despite the draw, the real victory was the newfound respect between the two teams.
Following the exhibition series, Japan’s hockey calendar remained occupied, as the host country for a four-team qualifying tournament for one of the spots at the 2018 Winter Games. The city of Tomakomai was the site as Austria, France and Germany challenged Japan in Group D play. Along with the Swiss, who captured the Group C title, Japan would punch their ticket to the Games, winning Group D. With the anticipation towards 2018, there is already a great sense of achievement as the Japanese shall appear in back-to-back Winter Games women’s ice hockey tournaments for the first time in their history.
To see that the Japanese members of the Inferno were integral towards such an achievement, it was a point of pride for Pierri, who is proud to see not only the growing influence of her team, but the remarkable level of competition that is quickly defining the global aspect of the female game. While Pierri was ecstatic at the opportunity to compete internationally, providing her with a treasured milestone, it was the sense of mutual respect and sportsmanship that truly resulted in this voyage becoming a hallowed episode of hockey heaven.
“Japan was an incredible experience and I am so grateful to Japan and their sponsors for making the trip possible. The game play was extremely competitive. Their systems truly play into their strengths as quick, discipline, and persistent players. I was so excited for Aina and AK to see that they have qualified for Korea!”
In the aftermath of the second contest, Sarah Davis and Gavrilova were both rewarded for their efforts with postgame awards. Davis would be presented with the Player of the Game Award while the honor of the Media Award for Outstanding Play was bestowed upon Gavrilova, whose efforts helped set the tone for the decisive victory. In discussing whether the honor was the highlight of the series, her grace and team-first approach shine through, emblematic of one of the hallmarks of international hockey,
“It was not the highlight of the series. I think the most memorable moment was that after we lost the first game we responded really well as a team and came back strong in the second game! It felt good to play our game and dictate the pace of the game.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo: Iya Gavrilova receiving the Media Award for Outstanding Play (Credit: Dave Holland)