By Celeste Decaire – CBC News
Ottawa’s Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) team has both the new league’s youngest player and its only Japanese player in the same pair of skates.
Akane Shiga, 22, is poised to make her North American pro debut Tuesday night at a sold-out TD Place arena against Montreal.
“I’m still learning English and there’s a long way to go, but just with help from everyone else and the teammates being very thoughtful of the language barriers … I think the communication part has been better than I expected,” she said through translator Madoka Suzuki
According to head coach Carla MacLeod, the language barrier has hardly been a setback.
“[At the] end of the day, the language that we speak is hockey,” MacLeod said, adding that Shiga speaks it very well.
The defender converted to forward and made her senior national team debut in the 2019 world championship. She then played in the 2022 Olympics, where her team won its group and suffered its only regulation loss in the quarterfinal.
Japan beat Czechia 3-2 in group play that tournament and MacLeod was behind the Czech bench as head coach.
“Obviously she’s an elite athlete within the sport, so it’s easy enough to sort of teach her the hockey side [as she’s] very visual. You can use video, you can draw, you can demo,” MacLeod said.
Ottawa’s bench boss was also an assistant for the Japanese team at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Spending a few years in the country, she picked up some words that she uses to give feedback to Shiga.
“I can randomly speak some Japanese to Akane and she just shakes her head and smiles because she knows I’m just being kind of a dork, but [I’m] trying to be inclusive that way too.”
All in all, it’s Shiga’s skill that makes her stand out. She started playing hockey at the age of six.
“I started playing hockey outside, just kind of like pond hockey style, and then just kept playing. I had ambitions to play overseas eventually,” Shiga said.
“So when the opportunity came to try out for Ottawa, it was a no-brainer.”
The hockey competition in North America is much stiffer than in Japan, making Shiga’s leap to the PWHL that much more remarkable.
“I just think that the dream is now available to all of us,” MacLeod said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Canada, US or Japan or [Czechia] or Germany or Hungary. You have opportunities in our game.”
Shiga made the team out of training camp and has been noted as one of the players to watch for this season. She said her family and friends will be cheering her on, but mostly from a distance.
Here in Ottawa, her nationality is getting recognition from the Ambassador of Japan to Canada.
“A woman, just on her own coming to Ottawa, becoming the big player? She can change the world,” said Yamanouchi Kanji.
“I think that is a great source for younger generations and also a symbol of the friendship between Canada and Japan — friendship on ice.”
His advice for Shiga this season is simple.
“No matter what they say, just be yourself. Have confidence and do your best.”