By Daniel Smith
For most hockey players, the chance to represent their country at the Olympic Games is the opportunity of a lifetime. But for Yoko Kondo, who played for Japan at the Nagano Games, the chance to play hockey for a Canadian team is an even greater opportunity.
Kondo is a rookie defender with the Ottawa Raiders, the best team in the National Women’s Hockey League this season. She was urged to try out last year by Wally Kozac, a Canadian who has been helping coach the Japanese national women’s team since 1998.
When Japan failed to qualify for the upcoming Olympics in Turin, Kozac suggested that two of his team’s best players try out for an NWHL team to improve their skills and prepare for the 2010 Vancouver Games. After tryouts this past August, Kondo was signed by the Raiders and fellow Japanese teammate Hanae Kubo was picked up by the Oakville Ice.
Kondo says the experience so far this season has been well worth it.
“I came to play here because I needed more skills, I needed to up my skills,” she says. “I am getting lots of good experience because it is a very different game [than in Japan.]”
Kondo, who is about five feet, five inches tall, says the biggest difference between Canadian and Japanese hockey is the size and strength of the players. Quite simply, she says, “Japanese people are small.” Canadian players, on the other hand, tend to be bigger, more powerful and aggressive, she says.
Fourth-year Raiders veteran Erica Olson says Kondo is adapting well to the physical challenges of the sport in Canada.
“She’s doing really great and really stepping it up. Dealing with all these differences is difficult, but she’s really finding her way through it.”
Coach Ron Duguay says the coaching staff like what they see so far. “She has done very, very well,” he says. “She’s given us everything we expected from her, and more.”
Kondo is one of six players who rotate on defence and so far she has played in all twenty-nine games this season. She has two goals and ten assists for a total of 12 points, which is the seventh-highest on the team and second-highest among defenders.
But defence partner Krista Black says that where Kondo really shines is in her speed. “Her best attribute is that she is really quick on her feet. She always gets back on defence.”
And Kondo’s success on the ice, says Olson, has been matched by great success off the ice as well.
“Living here and not having family here, and having to deal with the different culture must be very difficult,” she says. “But she does it somehow.”
Olson spent a year abroad playing hockey in Sweden. While she says adapting to the new culture took time, it was made easier that there were no communication barriers.
“At least in Sweden everyone spoke English, everyone could speak to me in my language,” she says.
“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have nobody around who speaks your language. I don’t know how she does it.”
Although most out-of-town players live together in one of the Raiders’ two team houses in Manotick, Kondo lives in a basement apartment closer to downtown because getting to practice in Orleans or work in Centretown was too much of a hassle without a car.
Kondo works about 15 to 20 hours a week at a Japanese restaurant on Bank Street.
Mitsu Ichi, the owner, says Kondo came into the restaurant about six months ago asking if they had any openings. He was looking for some help in the kitchen during the lunch shift, so he gave her a chance.
He says she gets along well with other workers and has been a great addition to his staff. “She is very nice, a very nice lady,”
Olson describes Kondo as “very self-sufficient,” but says that since she lives alone, team members take turns picking her up for practices and games on their way from work or from their home in Manotick.
“Anyone would pick her up, because we all appreciate what she is doing, and what she is going through to play for us.”
Kondo would like to stay and play for the Raiders next year, but she is in Canada on a one-year visa and is scheduled to return to Japan in July.
Coach Duguay says he would love to have her back if they could find some way to extend or renew her visa. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Eventually, Kondo intends to return to play for the Japanese national team and apply all that she has learned while playing in this league. Japan may not have qualified for the Turin Olympics, says Kondo, but they will not miss the next ones. “We will be there next time,” she says.
“We will be there in Vancouver.”