Sledge hockey shock
Host team suffers devastating semifinal loss
Japanese coach Kojin Nakakita may still have a hard time believing it. But his quick, determined and not-to-be denied sledge hockey team did the unthinkable Thursday afternoon, beating Canada 3-1 in their 2010 Paralympic semifinal at UBC Thunderbird Arena to win the right to go for gold Saturday against the U.S.
The Americans defeated Norway 3-0 in the other semifinal later Thursday. Canada will face Norway for bronze on Friday.
“My head went blank,” said Nakakita, when asked how he felt immediately after the game ended.
“I knew if we played Canada 1,000 times, we were going to lose 999 times. But not this one. We had a huge loss against the U.S. (6-0 on Tuesday), but we came back very strong.”
Those percentages may be a case of selling his team just a little short. The Japanese were quick and skilled against Canada, much better than they were against the U.S. on Tuesday.
For Canada, the loss was dev- astating. Thirteen of the 15 Canadians were part of the 2009 team that settled for bronze at worlds. They came in here wanting nothing less than gold, to follow in the footsteps of the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams that had won gold.
“We didn’t win. That’s what happened,” said Canadian captain Jean Labonte, a 40-year-old defenceman from Gatineau, Que., who is in his fourth and almost certainly f inal Paralympics.
“We had a lot of chances. We outchanced them, but couldn’t bury it. We worked really hard, but you have to hand it to Japan. They played the game we expected them to play. They’re a fast team. They go hard on the puck and I guess they capitalized on some of our plays. We lose as a team. Everybody battled hard, but it just didn’t go our way.
“I think they played the game they usually play. I’m wondering if we didn’t beat ourselves out there. We had our chances, we had them pinned in their end quite a few times, but we couldn’t capitalize. Hats off to them.”
Japanese goalie Mitsuru Nagase, who studied at Ottawa’s Algonquin College from 2000 to ’03, was exceptional. He blocked shot after shot — 19 in all — and was spectacular as the defending gold medallist Canadians were pressing for the go-ahead goal with the score 1-1 late in the third.
After a late Canadian flurry, the puck came into the neutral zone. The Japanese pounced on it, broke out on a three-on-one and Daisuke Uehara scored the game-winner, beating Canadian goalie Paul Rosen to the top corner at 13:47 of the third of three 15-minute periods. Japanese captain Takayuki Endo, who had tied the game 1-1 with a second-period goal, scored an empty-netter to ice it with 16 seconds remaining.
Marc Dorion of Bourget, Ont., scored Canada’s goal on a power play at 9:56 of the first.
“I was (crying),” said Nagase, 34, of the game’s dying moments. “I’ve been playing for 15 years. It’s 7 a.m. in Japan. I think maybe it’s on the news. I hope so. Japan beat Canada.”
On Thursday, after all the disappointment, the Canadians were at least able to talk about playing for keeps when the trophy is bronze.
“We came here to win gold, but there’s still a medal for us to win,” said defenceman Adam Dixon, of Mississauga, Ont. “We’re going to have to gather our thoughts and play whoever we play. It’s not the medal we want, but it’s the medal we’re going to win.”
Greg Westlake entered the game with seven goals, but couldn’t even rent one Thursday. The North Vancouver-born forward from Oakville, Ont., wondered if the team was as focused against Japan as it was when it handled Norway 5-0 on Tuesday. “It was a bad game,” he said. “What happened? You know our preparation for the Norway game was spot-on. We did everything right from the time we went to bed to the time we played the game and I don’t think we did that today. It has to start when you wake up in the morning.
“It was a quiet bus ride over today. I don’t know, as an assistant captain and as a proud Canadian hockey player, I wish there was something more I could have done.”
Japanese goalie Mitsuru Nagase celebrates semifinal triumph.
Canada’s Jean Labonte shows his disappointment after losing to Japan in a semifinal sledge hockey game Thursday.