Japan gets off to winning start in women’s ice hockey

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Rui Ukita, right, celebrates with Japan team members after scoring the go-ahead goal in the third period for Japan against Sweden on Thursday.

BEIJING — They are nicknamed “Smile Japan” and that’s just what the women’s ice hockey team did after starting its campaign at the Beijing Winter Olympics with a victory over an old nemesis.

Rui Ukita scored the go-ahead goal in the third period as Japan defeated Sweden 3-1 in their opening preliminary round Group B match on Thursday.

A day before the official opening of the Winter Olympics, the sixth-ranked Japanese knocked off a Swedish team that they had faced — and lost to — in their opening game at both of the last two Olympics, in Sochi and Pyeongchang.

Befitting the team’s nickname, the Japanese players were beaming after starting with a victory for the first time in four Olympic appearances.

Shiori Koike put Japan ahead with a goal in the last minute of the first period, but Sweden, ranked ninth in the world, tied it early in the second period. Ukita beat the Swedish goalie on a 1-on-1 four minutes into the third period, and Haruna Yoneyama added an empty-net goal to clinch the win.

The team has taken inspiration from the women’s softball team’s gallant march to a gold medal at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

“I hope we can also give a good showing that energizes others,” said forward Chiho Osawa, who is serving as team captain for the third straight Winter Olympics.

Shortly before the team’s departure to Beijing on Jan. 24, team members spoke remotely for about 90 minutes with Yukiko Ueno, the ace of the softball team who offered advice on how to mentally prepare for the Games.

Ueno told them that it is important for each member to think of what she can do for the team.

“That’s something that I have been feeling since becoming a member of the national team,” Osawa said. “It was good motivation for the team.”

So the Games begins with athletes carrying the spirit passed on from summer to winter, and from Tokyo to Beijing.