The Japan Under-20 men’s national team stands on the ice before its game against Ukraine in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B final in Poland in December 2022. (International Ice Hockey Federation)

By Jim Armstrong – SportsLook

Looking to emulate the progress made by the women’s team, the Japan Ice Hockey Federation has hired a veteran National Hockey League coach to help the men’s national squad move up in the rankings.

As the host nation, both Japan’s men’s and women’s teams took part in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where it was hoped appearing on such a large stage would give the sport a boost in Japan.

The Japanese men, under Canadian coach Dave King, had two losses and a draw in the preliminary round. Then, before a capacity crowd of 9,495 at the Big Hat arena, they beat Austria 4-3 in the consolation round.

It was a significant accomplishment. While not a top-tier nation, Austria had a decent hockey program at the time and was in the group of teams just below the elite division.

The women went 0-5 in the preliminary round with their best result being a 5-0 loss to Sweden.

It was hoped both the men and women would build on the Nagano experience. But that’s only been the case for the women’s team, which has risen all the way to seventh in the IIHF rankings.

Known as “Smile Japan,” the women’s team has found a winning formula. The men, currently 25th in the world rankings, are still looking for one.

In order to take the next step, Japanese ice officials named veteran former NHL coach Perry Pearn as head coach of the national senior and junior men’s teams in November of 2022. And the move is already paying off.

“I am very excited to have the opportunity to lead the Japan national team,” Pearn said in a statement after the announcement was made.

Japan men’s ice hockey head coach Perry Pearn coached for many years in the NHL. (Japan Ice Hockey Federation)

Junior Squad’s Successful Debut Under Pearn

One of Pearn’s first assignments was guiding Japan’s Under-20 team at the 2023 IIHF U20 World Championship Division 1 Group B tournament in Bytom, Poland in December.

And the team came through with a stunning 7-4 win over Ukraine to take the gold medal and secure a place in next season’s Division 1A competition.

Such wins are hugely important to the overall men’s program. The players on the U20 team are the future stars of the senior team.

Pearn attributed Japan’s success in Poland to the team’s quickness.

“We’re not a big team but our speed and quickness is really noticeable,” Pearn told the IIHF website. 

He added, “We’re much better skaters overall than most of the teams in the tournament.”

Pearn said Japan was able to compensate for its lack of size against the bigger Europeans.

“We’re not as big as some of the teams. So we have to be really smart in terms of winning battles by playing a different way than probably a team like Ukraine is able to play,” the coach said.

Preparation Paid Off for Japan

One of Ukraine’s star players, forward Olexi Dakhnovskyi, marveled at Japan’s ability to anticipate the flow of the game, a tribute to Pearn’s coaching no doubt.

“They were the best team because they were so prepared for us,” Dakhnovskyi told IIHF after the game. 

He added, “They were the most disciplined team we faced, [and] they were ready. And it was like they knew what we were going to do on every centimeter of the rink.”

In Poland, Japan was led by Junya Owa who had three assists in the final and finished the tournament with six points to be named best defender. Forward Kotaro Murase was tied for the tournament lead with 10 points.

After the gold-medal win in Poland that included wins over South Korea, Poland and Estonia in the preliminary round, there was still more success for the juniors at the 2023 World University Games in Lake Placid, New York, in January. 

Japan opened with an 8-3 win over Latvia and beat Sweden 5-0 in a major upset. 

Two wins against two losses in the preliminary round was good enough to get Pearn’s team to the semifinals where it lost a hard-fought game 4-3 to the United States.

Japan played Kazakhstan in the bronze medal game but lost 8-1. Still, there were plenty of positives in Lake Placid, and it was more proof the Japanese men are getting more competitive at the international level.

Upcoming Test for Japan Senior Squad 

The hope now is that Pearn can do for the senior men what he has done at the junior level.

The next big test will come when the senior men’s team plays in the Ice Hockey World Championship, Division 1 Group B tournament in Estonia from April 23-29.

Currently, the elite level of international ice hockey is made up of 16 teams that contest the IIHF World Championships every spring.

This group includes powerhouses like Canada, Sweden, the United States, Finland and the Czech Republic. Russia and Belarus are currently suspended.

Other nations like Germany, Norway and Switzerland are also currently in the elite 16 and will compete at the IIHF World Championship in Finland and Latvia from May 12-28.

Below the elite level is Division 1 which has Group A and Group B. Group A teams compete for promotion to the Elite Division while Group B teams compete for promotion to Division 1 Group A.

Japan currently finds itself in Group B along with Estonia, China, the Netherlands, Serbia and Ukraine.

The goal for Japan now is to earn promotion to Group A just like the junior team did. There are also Divisions II through IV so Japan is ahead of many countries.

The Japan Under-20 men’s national team in Poland. (International Ice Hockey Federation)

A Wealth of Coaching Experience

Pearn seems to be the right man for the job.

A lifelong coach, the 71-year-old from Stettler, Alberta, has twice served as an assistant coach with Canada’s national junior team at the IIHF World Junior Championships (1990, 1991). 

Then as head coach, he led Canada ― and future Hockey Hall of Famers Paul Kariya and Chris Pronger ― to gold in 1993.

After 1993, Pearn went to coach professionally in Switzerland. He then went on to serve as an assistant coach in the NHL for 21 years with the Winnipeg Jets (twice), Ottawa Senators, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks.

He brings a wealth of experience that can only help Japan’s bid to reach the next level.