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Road to Beijing 2022: Captain Nao Kodama of the Japan Ice Hockey Team Discusses Their Recent Growth

The story of the Japan national ice hockey team at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games was one of struggle—one that ended in them coming in last place. It’s true that the team hasn’t been able to make the kind of impact they used to on the world stage. Even in the recent 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, for instance, the team found themselves moving back and forth between the A and B pools. But in recent years the team has gotten younger and more energized, with brighter prospects for the future. We talked to Nao Kodama, the captain and central figure of Japan’s burgeoning national ice hockey team, about his thoughts on the team and their future.

Preparing for the Beijing Paralympic Winter Games with a New Coach and a Younger Team

In the past, the Japan national ice hockey team had been discussed in articles alongside headlines that referenced their average age (over 40 years old), or that referred to them as an “aging team.” Not anymore. Many of the members of the intensive training camp for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games are young players. How has the team changed under Kenji Nobuta, since he was appointed coach in June 2019?

Nao Kodama (hereafter “Kodama”): Until just recently, I was the second youngest player on the team, at age 34. But thanks partly to the JAPAN RISING STAR PROJECT (a project by The Japan Sport Association that aims to discover and cultivate top athletes), we now have about six newer players who’ve come in who are younger than me. That obviously makes me happy, but I do think it’s changed the atmosphere of the team. You watch videos of the team playing, and you can see that the plays are faster, that the game as a whole is moving faster. It’s made me nervous, and I feel a lot of pressure—I’m sure it’s the same for the other players. And the new players who’ve come in, they also just get better so fast. Of course part of that is just that they’re putting in the work, but I think it’s also because we have more time to train on the ice than we used to. I personally am struggling a bit, having to spend more time teaching the newer players.

The team as a whole has gotten younger. Still, without the long-time members who’ve experienced the various joys and struggles of the team, it wouldn’t function nearly as well.

Kodama: The long-time members play a really important role in the team. None of them have that kind of stubborn, prideful thing where they expect the newer players to just watch them and learn that way—they’re really generous with their time. Mamoru Yoshikawa, who’s competed in five Paralympic Games, even tunes up their equipment, like their sledges. The momentum of the newer members is balanced out by the more measured older members, which means as a team, we’re headed in a good direction. For the team as a whole to get stronger, we have to teach the newer members a lot of different things. The good thing though is that the long-timers and the team mainstays know that, and understand that it’s their responsibility to do that.

Japan came in 8th place; the team wasn’t able to perform the way they wanted in the PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games

Kodama as Captain, an Unsung Hero of the Team

After the PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games, the Japan national team didn’t have a set captain for a while. Over time, however, Kodama began to take on the roles of a captain, in training and in other settings. And in the end of 2018, Kodama officially got the “C” next to his name—the C for captain.

Kodama: I mean, I grew up as a whiny little brother [laughs]. I think really, the “C” should’ve gone to someone with more leadership, but… We were taking turns being captain for the 2018 season, but as we were doing that I realized I was being named captain more and more [laughs]. So when our coach at the time, Kojin Nakakita, officially appointed me captain, I accepted.

When I became captain, I was told to choose the “As” (assistant captains). This is a team that has both new players and long-time players, so I knew if I messed it up, it could really make waves in the team. But I knew it was time to give the newer players more responsibility, and that we wouldn’t be able to grow as a team if we kept just relying on the long-timers to do everything. So I got the advice of some of the long-timers, and I appointed our team mainstay Masaharu Kumagai and Yoshihiro Shioya assistant captains.

At this point, I still don’t know whether these decisions were good or bad. Nothing is ever 100%. But, no matter what the result, I think if we’re able to learn from it, we can consider it a success.

Kodama is reserved and mild-mannered. As a leader, he’s more the type to focus on cooperation, working behind-the-scenes to guide them in the same direction, than the type who leads through power.

Kodama: I was captain of my junior basketball team in elementary school, and even then I remember thinking I wasn’t very good at being captain [laughs]. I think normally when you’re captain, you have to tell the people around you what to do, give instructions and whatnot, but I tend to want to do everything on my own, and just bottle everything up inside… I think I’m actually better behind-the-scenes, when I’m working to support other players. I got an osteosarcoma when I was 15, which meant in high school I was manager of the basketball team instead, and I think that may have suited me more than being captain. What about being captain feels meaningful? None of it, for me—not once have I thought it was fun [laughs].

So for me, someone who’s able to communicate properly with everyone around them, and get the team to share and learn from their own issues… that’s the way a captain should be.

Underneath Kodama’s humble attitude is a passion for the Japan national team and for the sport of ice hockey

Kodama chatting with the other team members; he’s currently having difficulty teaching the younger players

For the Japan national team to qualify for the Beijing Paralympic Winter Games, they’ll first have to qualify for the final world preliminaries. To do so, they’ll need to do well in the World Para Ice Hockey Championships B-Pool, which is slated to be held in 2021.

Kodama: The goal is to compete in the Beijing Paralympic Winter Games and win a medal. I personally will work as hard as I can so all players on the team will be able to do what they need to do towards that goal.

The current Japan national ice hockey team, centered around its captain Kodama, is a good balance of young and old, newcomer and long-timer. For this burgeoning team to be able to make their mark on history, however, they’ll first have to find their way to the Beijing Paralympic Winter Games. We hope they’ll make it there.

text by TEAM A
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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