How Yuta Narisawa and Akane Hosoyamada frame Japan’s ice hockey teams on the international stage

Pro players
min - read
Gary Mok
Pro players
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Japan's national men's and women's ice hockey teams continue to make their mark thanks to a talented cast of players.
Yuta Narisawa backstopped the Japanese men's national team to victory at the IIHF Men's World Championship Div. B tournament earlier this year.
Akane Hosoyamada is one of many talented players on the seventh-ranked Japanese women's national hockey team.

Progress is rarely linear

The day after celebrating his 24th birthday, Yuta Narisawa got the call.

Down 4-0 in Japan’s opening match of the 2012 IIHF Men’s World Championships Division 1 Group A (Div. 1A) tournament, the Kushiro-born goaltender entered the game to make his first senior appearance for the Japanese men’s national ice hockey team.

Three days later, Narisawa made his first senior start and it was a game to remember.

Matched up against an Austrian team that boasted a number of talented forwards, including NHL winger Michael Grabner, Narisawa turned away 35 shots en route to a shootout victory, which proved vital in preventing Japan from being relegated from the group.

His international journey after that tournament — much like his national team — became much more uneven after that.

Japan’s men’s national team remained in Div. 1A (the group of teams one rung below the championship-contending nations in the top division) until 2016, when it went winless and got related to Div. 1B.

At the same time, Narisawa ceded the national crease to other Japanese goaltenders of note — like Yutaka Fukufuji, the one-time Los Angeles Kings netminder.

Narisawa bided his time, plying his trade back home with the Red Eagles Hokkaido (formerly Oji Eagles) of the Asia League, until his national team called his name again.

When they did, the fortunes of player and nation saw a shift.

At the 2022 IIHF Men’s World Championship Div. 1B tournament, Narisawa wrested control of the crease from Fukufuji and started every one of his nation’s games.

The team won their first three games of the tournament, setting up a decisive final match against host nation Poland.

The winner of that game would be promoted to Div. 1A.

Despite turning away 22 of 24 shots, Narisawa was outdueled by Polish netminder John Murray, whose shutout brought heartache to Japan.

Thankfully, the hurt didn’t last too long.

Along with a dominant performance from star forward Yushiroh Hirano, Narisawa backstopped Japan to an undefeated record in this year’s Men’s World Championship. His prize? Narisawa was named the tournament’s Best Goaltender and Japan gained promotion back to Div. 1A.

Progress is rarely linear. When Narisawa got his first senior national start, he likely didn’t anticipate he’d have to wait so long to play in Div. 1A again.

But at the age of 36, Narisawa — who now considers his greatest off-ice strengths to include cooking rice and completing household chores — has given his nation an opportunity to dream of dusting off many other national men’s programs in their future.

Photo credit: IHHF
Image: Yuta Narisawa (front row, first from the left) and the Japanese men's national ice hockey team pose after winning IIHF World Championship Div. 1B in 2023. (CREDIT: IHHF)

‘Playing with what we have, that is our strength’

Akane Hosoyamada didn’t always like hockey.

“Hockey wasn’t my first sport, I was a figure skater,” she said in an IIHF feature last year. “Figure skates have the toe picks, hockey doesn’t, and I couldn’t skate at all. My first time on the ice as a hockey player… I couldn’t get going at all. And I remember crying.”

She stuck with it, though.

Eventually, the Canadian-born defender played her way into the NCAA, co-captaining Syracuse University in her final year of eligibility.

One year later, she was named to the Japanese women’s national team and helped lead Japan from Div. 1A back into the top division, where they’ve remained ever since.

“In Division 1A, we were good,” she said in a separate IIHF-produced feature. “We had possession of the puck a lot, we were just having trouble putting the puck in the net, you know?”

But the national team has progressed to become much more capable in the years since.

The roster now boasts multiple star players, such as Aoi Shiga and Akane Shiga, as well as 17 year-old Kohane Sato. In the middle of the roster sits Hosoyamada.

“She is the one I trust the most,” said women’s national hockey team coach Takeshi Yamanaka ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Part of that trust in Hosoyamada resides with her own belief in her team and teammates, a faith that is often sprinkled with some necessary realism.

“We’re not Team USA, we’re not Team Canada. We don’t have the size, we don’t have the weight,” she said. “Playing with what we have, that is our strength.”

The seventh-ranked nation in women’s hockey is on the rise, and much of that continued ascension rests on the team knowing who they are and the kind of hockey they want to play.

“We have speed, we have agility, we have stamina,” Hosoyamada said.

“We can fight with that.”

Image: Akane Hosoyamada smiles at the 2023 IIHF Women's World Championships. (CREDIT: IIHF)

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