International Ice Hockey Federation

Kondo fever hits Sochi

Kondo fever hits Sochi

Only Japanese player from Nagano ’98 now a leader

Published 12.02.2014 12:53 GMT+4 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Kondo fever hits Sochi
Yoko Kondo in Nagano 1998 and in Sochi 2014. Photos: Reuters, Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
It’s taken only two days for Japan’s women’s team to establish themselves as the beloved underdogs in Sochi.

Playing in the Olympics for the first time since hosting in Nagano in 1998, the Japanese women are not expected to advance to the playoff round, but that hasn’t diminished their Olympic spirit for qualifying for Sochi or their determination to play every game, every period, every shift to the best of their ability.

Perhaps their character and motivation come from tiny defenceman Yoko Kondo. Kondo, who will be 35 years old tomorrow, is the only player on today’s team who skated for Japan in 1998.

“As the only player from the Nagano Games,” she enthused, “I feel a responsibility to be a leader and share my experiences with my teammates.”

Kondo has played in all top-level appearances by the Japanese since, notably the Women’s Worlds in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2009. As well, she has played in Division I for her country in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2013.

Will Kondo play next year too? “I’ll wait until the end of the season to decide whether I’ll keep playing or retire,” she said coyly, although one senses she isn’t interested in retiring just yet. She sounds not only motivated but aware that hockey is a constant challenge and test, one that never really ends.

”From Nagano to today,” she went on, “I continue to want to learn. I want to do more. I have many goals. This is why I’ve continued to play for so long.”

Despite not having played in the top level of the Women’s Worlds since 2009, Japan qualified for the Sochi Games by finishing ahead of Denmark, Norway, and Slovakia in a February 2013 qualification event.

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“If I compare our team from Nagano to our team today, they are two different teams,” Kondo explained. “We are more mature and much stronger. The players are better and in better shape.”

The team’s actions so far in Sochi have spoken louder than her words. In the team’s first game against the much-favoured Swedes, Japan lost 1-0 and was arguably the better team in the last half of the game. It was just a lack of scoring touch or nerves around the Swedish net which prevented the Japanese from tying the score.

“As the only player with Olympics experience, I wanted to show my teammates you may be nervous or be afraid, but you must go out and play,” Kondo continued. “Our first game was a good lesson for this.”

Indeed, confidence and an unwillingness to simply fold after trailing 1-0 early were the most impressive elements of the team’s game. The second game was a close defeat too, 2-1 against Russia.

The team also has a tag line - Smile Japan.

“During the Olympic qualification games,” Kondo related, “everyone was so nervous and stiff. We decided smiling was the best solution for this situation, so we decided to give our team a nickname - Smile Japan.”

When she does retire, Kondo wants to stay involved in the game. “I would like to become a coach after I have finished my career as a player. That’s why, even now, I try to help out my teammates and give them advice whenever I can.”

Kondo lives and works in Tokyo and isn’t married and has no children, so she will have plenty of time to devote to developing the next generation of Japanese women players.

“There are three things we need to do to improve,” she began, with coach-like thought. “First, we are small. We have small bodies, so we need to be physically stronger. Second, speed. We aren’t as fast as the top teams, so we must be better. Third, we have to learn how to go to the net and score goals.”

Knowledge is half the climb up the hill, but if Kondo’s personality can have an effect on those around her, those she mentors might well be able to get to the top. In the meantime, she’ll make the most of her time in Sochi and do what she can to keep her team competitive and the fans enthralled.


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