OTTAWA — Nearly 6,000 miles away from her hometown in Hokkaido, Japan, Akane Shiga was being asked about the weather.
Mike Hirshfeld, general manager of Ottawa’s PWHL team, was sitting with Shiga and coach Carla MacLeod in the team office at TD Place Arena, speaking to the 22-year-old forward and Japanese national team member through her interpreter.
“She’s looking at me like, ‘What is he talking about?’” Hirshfeld said about the playful preamble to an important bit of news ahead of the PWHL’s final roster deadline.
Because what Hirshfeld really wanted to know was how Shiga felt about spending the winter in Ottawa, as a member of the newest pro team in Canada’s capital.
When he told Shiga that she’d made the team, “her face just lit up,” Hirshfeld said.
“I feel very honored to be given this opportunity,” Shiga told The Athletic through her interpreter, Madoka Suzuki.
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The moment was the culmination of a hockey journey that saw Shiga travel across the world for her chance to play professional hockey in North America. Despite her credentials — an Olympian and four-time member of Japan’s World Championship team — she was not selected in the 15-round PWHL Draft in September. Unswayed, Shiga flew to Ottawa alone in November, with no guarantee of a contract, to try out for the team.
Her skating ability, quick release and hockey IQ impressed Ottawa’s braintrust and earned Shiga a one-year contract.
Now, she is a historic player in a historic league embarking on a singular path: Shiga is the youngest player in the PWHL and the only Japanese-born player.
This season Shiga is adjusting to her first year as a professional hockey player, and simultaneously adapting to life in a new country and learning a new language.
“To know the courage it took for her to fly over here on her own and walk into an environment where she didn’t speak the language and she didn’t know anyone,” MacLeod said. “To know at that moment that she had gambled on herself and she earned her opportunity — that’s what sport is all about.”
Where Shiga grew up in Hokkaido — the northernmost and second-largest island in Japan — hockey is, at the very least, an option. Some might call it Japan’s hockey hotbed, with most of the national team players coming from the northern region.
“If you want to play hockey, it’s accessible,” Shiga said through her interpreter. “But it’s not a sport that everyone picks to play like it is in Canada.”
In Tokyo, on the other hand, where Suzuki — who was hired to serve as Shiga’s interpreter in November and plays hockey at Carleton University in Ottawa — is from, “you’re kind of a weirdo if you’re playing hockey,” he said with a laugh.
According to the IIHF, there are only 1,281 registered female hockey players in Japan, with a national population of about 124 million. There are more indoor rinks in Canada (2,860) and registered female players in the state of Florida (1,517).
Shiga, though, found hockey skating on an outdoor rink with her sister, Aoi, when she was six years old and she “never looked back.” When she was 13, in 2014, Shiga watched a Japanese women’s hockey team play at the Olympics for the first time in her life — and for the first time since Japan was the host nation in 1998. “It had a big impact on my career,” she said.
MacLeod, now Shiga’s coach in Ottawa, was an assistant coach for Japan at the time.
“I know what ’98 meant to me as a young Canadian kid when I saw those women on TV and I knew that that dream could then be mine,” said MacLeod, who went on to win two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. “To know that a piece of that moment is within her and helping her to inspire that next group and helping her to achieve her dreams is pretty special.”
Shiga’s dream was realized only one year later when she made the Japanese under-18 team for the 2015-16 Division 1 world championships. She was one of the youngest players at the tournament and scored two goals and four points to lead Japan to a gold medal, and promotion to the top tier U18 world championships in 2016-17.
“I didn’t think I was ready to make the jump that soon,” Shiga said. “But I was very excited to get the news.”
She’s been a member of the Japanese national program ever since, playing on four under-18 teams, four senior world championships and qualifying for the 2022 Olympics. In 2019, Shiga made the switch from defense to forward because her coach, Yuji Iizuka thought she could help provide more offense for the team.
And he was right.
In 2021, Shiga was one of the breakout stars of the women’s world championships in Calgary, Alta. She scored the opening goal against Hungary in a critical 4-1 win for Japan to make it to the quarterfinals. She became the first Japanese player ever to score against Team USA — and she did it twice. Then, she scored the game-winning goal against Czechia to secure Japan’s best finish (sixth) at women’s worlds. Her four goals tied for fifth among North American stars like Natalie Spooner and Hilary Knight. It was one more than Canada’s Captain Marie-Philip Poulin had in the tournament.
“She’s a very important part of the team’s success,” Iizuka told IIHF.com “Our teams have always had trouble scoring, so to find someone who can put the puck in the net is very important.”
After years of adding to her reputation as one of the most talented players outside North America — including a trip to the 2022 Beijing Olympics — it was only natural that Shiga’s name popped up when the PWHL Ottawa front office decided to prioritize bringing in international talent.
“Obviously there’s a natural tether for me to the international game, and I’ve been lucky to see how talented these players are around the world. So for us it was an easy decision to say, Let’s bring in some international players and see how they do,” MacLeod said. “If they can make it, great. And if they don’t, at least we know that too. But we didn’t want to leave that uncertainty.”
According to Shiga, Ottawa was the only team to call when PWHL free agency opened in September.
At training camp, Shiga quickly impressed.
“I would say two days in, we knew we had something,” Hirshfeld said. “Her skating is off the charts. So is her hockey IQ. I remember Claude Julien (the former NHL coach) was here one day and he was like, ‘Who is that?’”
“Her skill with the puck catches everyone’s attention because she can maneuver things in a small space that a lot of people can’t,” MacLeod explained. “The puck comes off her stick faster than you anticipate and with a velocity that you’re not sure where that’s all coming from because she’s such a petite player. And she can do it in a phone booth.”
There was chatter amongst the Ottawa players ahead of camp about a player from Japan trying out for the team. Some national team players would have been familiar with Shiga’s game from world championships or the Olympics. But others, like defender Zoe Boyd, were being introduced to her for the first time.
She recalls a moment early into training camp where Shiga danced around in the offensive zone and sent a slapshot zinging past her face, bardown and in.
“Holy crap, this girl is legit,” Boyd thought at the time. “She’s the real deal.”
“Surprised isn’t the right word to describe it,” she explained. “We’re just amazed by Akane, her play, and what an amazing person she is — in spite of not being able to fluently speak English.”
When Madoka Suzuki answered the phone on a Thursday afternoon, he was in the car taking Shiga home from one of their errands.
“Had to do some banking,” he said. “Applying for credit cards and stuff.”
Bringing Shiga to Ottawa introduced the issue of the language barrier. The PWHL has 14 players from overseas — hailing from countries such as France, Hungary, and Czechia — but most of those players speak at least some English. Shiga did not, so Ottawa knew they’d need an interpreter to make her feel more comfortable and confident at tryouts.
The team started with a call to the Japanese Embassy, who provided a list of names, but those interpreters would cost around $300 per hour. “No one can afford that,” Hirshfeld said, laughing.
The team tried calling the universities in the city and connected with Stacey Colarossi, the coach of Carleton’s women’s hockey team, who referred Hirshfeld to Suzuki, a 24-year-old from Japan and a forward on the men’s hockey team.
As it turned out, Suzuki’s sister, Chihiro, played on the national team with Shiga last year and had already alerted her brother that Shiga had made the move to Ottawa and might need a friend in town. So, when Hirshfeld made the call with a job offer, Suzuki quickly accepted.
The day Shiga arrived in Ottawa, Suzuki was at the airport to pick her up and bring her to the team hotel. When the team skates, Suzuki is on the ice translating instructions for drills, or messages from the coaching staff. He attends team meetings and games, too, as his schedule allows. If Suzuki has class — he’s a psychology major at Carleton — or is on the road with his hockey team, he will join meetings or interviews over the phone.
“He understands the teachings from the coaching side and obviously as he’s translating, is giving her information that’s helping her grow and fit within the team side of things,” MacLeod said. “He’s really invaluable when it comes to Akane and Akane feeling included.”
“We love having Madoka around,” said defender Jincy Roese (née Dunne). “I feel like he’s just one of the girls — as much part of this team as any one of us.”
Suzuki’s work with Shiga goes beyond the rink. After Shiga made the Ottawa team, she had to fly to Hungary to play in the 4 Nations tournament for Team Japan. While she was there, Suzuki found a realtor to start looking for apartments for Shiga and got all the paperwork done so that when she returned they could find her a place to live as quickly as possible. He’ll take her to the bank to get an account or credit card set up, or to Ikea to buy furniture, or to get food at a restaurant or grocery store.
“A lot of the ‘work’ I’m doing is more as a friend than anything,” he said. “She’s made it super easy on me too. She’s very enjoyable to work with.”
Suzuki moved to Canada from Japan with his mom and sister in 2014, when he was 14 years old. He spoke English and had family with him, but he still remembers the difficult adjustment to a new place and new culture.
“I’m glad I could help her out this way, because otherwise it’s quite the journey to get your feet going up here,” he said.
Shiga has been using the Duolingo app to learn English. Her teammates have been helping her learn, too. Suzuki will sometimes step back and just let Shiga try to talk without needing the translation. If he’s not around, teammates will use Google Translate if Shiga needs help.
“She’s really quiet right now, but that’s to be expected,” said Roese. “But you see it there, she’ll speak a little more, she’ll get a little more involved in conversation. You can tell she’s starting to follow along more.”
Roese has learned some Japanese to help break the language barrier where she can. And MacLeod still knows a few words from her time as an assistant coach with Team Japan.
“I know the word ‘koko’ (which means here in Japanese), or I know the word hurry or no hesitation,” she said. “There’s certainly something small, small nuggets that obviously I was fortunate enough to pick up when I worked with them for two years. Not enough to actually be smart, but enough to maybe help in moments.”
Shiga’s teammates “love her,” Hirshfeld said. And several have taken her under their wing to make her feel comfortable and included on the team.
Boyd and her roommate Kristin Della Rovere will drive Shiga home from the rink, or take her to a teammate’s house if there’s a get-together. They’ve gone for bubble tea and have promised to have Shiga over once she’s settled in so she can see Boyd’s cat, Sam.
Shiga loves cats and has two back home in Japan named Pickle and Churro. “I miss the cats more than anyone,” she said with a laugh.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like to come to a country where nobody speaks your language,” Boyd said. “So naturally I just wanted to make sure that she understands things — like everybody did.
“But Akane is hilarious. Even though she can’t speak English very well, she still makes the funniest jokes and gets her point across. It’s been a pleasure to hang out with her and be a teammate with her.”
On the ice, Shiga is still adjusting to her first professional season. Through six games, Shiga hasn’t registered a point yet, but nobody in Ottawa is looking at the scoresheet.
“We’re not even worrying about that,” said Hirshfeld. “She’s getting used to the speed and physicality of this league, but I know she’s got the hockey IQ to work through it. She’s a great skater, which I think is a great advantage in this league. We’re very optimistic.”
Shiga has impressed in games with her skating and hands in tight with the puck. MacLeod says she works hard in practice and has already seen Shiga’s game grow in Ottawa. It seems like only a matter of time before she scores her first PWHL goal.
“I’ve never seen somebody that can rip the puck like she can,” Roese said. “Just bardown from anywhere.”
Shiga is also one of the most popular players in Ottawa. “I think she got the second loudest cheer after (Brianne) Jenner,” MacLeod said about the home-opener intros.
The Ambassador of Japan to Canada attended Ottawa’s home opener. There have been several Shiga signs spotted in the stands, and plenty of fan mail sent to her home — something Shiga says started after she played in the Olympics.
“She’s 22 years old,” MacLeod said. “Think of all the variables: youngest in the league, playing in a country, in a league that’s not native tongue to her, and she just keeps rising. What an incredible human being.”
Shiga hopes her sister, a 24-year-old defender playing in Switzerland, can join the league next season. The two were signed to play together with the Buffalo Beauts in the PHF before the league folded last season. More than anything, she hopes more players from Japan can follow in her footsteps.
“To be able to pave the path for younger players and give them someone to look up to — to say, you can be from Japan and play hockey — is a huge honor,” she said. “And I’m just very excited for what the future holds.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Courtesy of Madoka Suzuki; Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)