International Ice Hockey Federation

Swede dreams

Swede dreams

Hirano key in familiar surroundings

Published 28.03.2015 06:33 GMT+1 | Author Henrik Manninen
Swede dreams
Japan's Yuka Hirano tried to get the puck past German goalie Viona Harrer at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
After nearly winning a championship with AIK Stockholm, Yuka Hirano hopes to cap off her Swedish sojourn on a high with Japan at the Women’s Worlds.

Fresh from having chased silverware with AIK Stockholm this season, Hirano will be one of the cornerstones in a burgeoning Japan team eager to try and consolidate their place at the top division of the Women’s World Championship following a six-year absence.

The 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Malmo arrives at an exciting time for Japanese women's hockey. Despite suffering five straight defeats during their return to the Winter Olympics after a 16-year hiatus in Sochi last February, the country bounced back later that year by beating Czech Republic over three games in November to seal its place at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Malmo, Sweden.

Eager to speed up their development and close the gap against their opponents, the Japan Ice Hockey Federation stepped up its efforts ahead of this season by shipping out a quartet of Olympians abroad. Moeko Fujimoto and Miho Shishiuchi departed for Finland to Espoo Blues and HPK Hameenlinna respectively, Aina Takeuchi moved to play in the CWHL with Canada's Calgary Inferno, while Hirano opted to continue her development in Sweden's capital.

"Playing in a strong league, with more matches against bigger opponents while having access to better training facilities," explained Hirano on what it was that attracted her to Sweden, in a move which came to fruition thanks to Swedish-Japanese hockey relations.

"AIK Stockholm has a junior team coach called Taro Nihei, so after the Japanese federation introduced me to the team I got into contact with him," Hirano said.

Continue reading

Stockholm-born Taro Nihei had, together with his twin brother and goaltender Jiro, represented Japan at international level and played club hockey in Northeast Asia before embarking on a career coaching juniors in Sweden. Hirano's arrival to Scandinavia was further eased thanks to the family of her new teammate at AIK Stockholm, Minatsu Murase, a goalie with Japanese roots whose father assisted Hirano with any cultural and linguistic challenges in her new environment.

Thanks to her hockey-playing father and brother, Hirano first picked up the game at the age of six in the Olympic city of Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Having reached the age of 27 she was now offered a chance to experience life in another part of the world while playing for a team with an illustrious history of four Swedish championships and as many IIHF European Women Champions Cup trophies.

"I worked out harder than before," said Hirano of playing hockey full-time in Sweden. "I knew I needed to improve both my physical strength and shot, but what I've also done in Sweden is to try and develop my attacking game while making quicker decisions out on the ice."

While the hockey section of AIK Stockholm encountered turbulent times off the ice throughout this season, it was once again the women's team flying the black and yellow flag of the club. Hirano settled in nicely to play an integral part in the team's success which carried them to the Swedish championship final series. While a star-studded Linkoping team in the end proved too hot for AIK Stockholm to handle, Hirano's season long spell at AIK Stockholm ended with a with a silver medal around her neck and a glowing send-off by head coach Stefan af Bjur:

"Yuka is the model pro. Loyal towards the team, in good spirits and ambitious. She has a fantastic eye for the game, good technique both when it comes to skating and stick-handling," he said.

"She needs to work more on her shooting, but overall she has been a very good addition to the team both on and off the ice and many players could learn a lot from her also in terms of her positive attitude, eagerness to listen while being modest."

Skills that now will come to good use, as Japan's credentials at the top are to be tested. Entering their seventh top division Women’s World Championship, and their first since 2009, head coach Yoshifumi Fujisawa puts a lot of faith in Hirano to lead with example as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland await in Group B.

"Yuka's qualities are her skills such as making the play, and although she is small in stature she knows how to play against bigger opponents, so as one our veteran players I expect strong leadership from her," said Fujisawa, who aims to continue Japan's recent ascent with one eye set on participating at the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted by PyeongChang in neighbouring Korea.

"Currently we are ranked number eight in the world and our aim is continue to rise in the ranking," he said.

Hirano who turned 28 in January this year and at the top level made her national team debut for Japan back in 2001, admits she hopes her involvement in the sport she discovered as a young kid back in Sapporo will continue even long after the day she decides to retire as a player.

"In the future I hope to be able to share my experiences with children while also wanting more people in Japan to find out about the sport," she said.

But being at the peak of powers, plenty of tough matches and major tournaments are still ahead of her in her playing career. With the World Championships in Malmo next in line and having ended her season with AIK Stockholm with a defeat, she now hopes to round off her spell in Sweden with a win and also see the team go one better than at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

"In Sochi we did not win one match, this time we want more," she said.


Back to Overview