Oct 13, 2018 | The Whig Standard | 313 views
From Japan to Kingston
The Whig Standard: October 13, 2018: Lining up on the left side of the faceoff circle, Chihiro Suzuki is often half a foot shorter than her counterpart. The size difference is daunting, but she knows her job. It isn’t to stand up to anyone pound for pound, it’s to deke around them, it’s to out-pace her opponents and have them wondering who this little rookie is. Standing 5-2 and weighing 115 pounds, 16-year-old Suzuki of the Kingston Junior Ice Wolves women’s hockey team is quick on her feet and getting quicker, Ice Wolves head coach Troy Sweet said.
Her hands cradle the puck with her stick and she looks beyond her opponents. If alone on a breakaway, a defencemen left flat-footed is out of luck.“Skating skills is something that I’ve worked on and I think is my biggest strength,” Suzuki said. “I’m not really a big goal scorer or a playmaker, but I get my little jobs done. Like getting the puck out of our zone, not being the reason we’re scored on.“Even just getting a shot on net so the first line can start the play in the offensive zone.”On Sept. 30, 13:31 into the second period of Provincial Women’s Hockey League action against the Oakville Hornets, Suzuki’s speed took Hornets goalie Taylor Liotta by surprise. Racing up the left side, Suzuki didn’t hesitate as she threw the puck trapper-side.“It caught the goalie off-guard because [Suzuki] was in stride and moving her feet,” Sweet said. “It was a big uplift for us because that was our first goal [of the game]. She got us going and that’s huge for a young kid like that to get the team motivated and going.”Suzuki’s journey to the Junior Ice Wolves is tremendously unique, with many challenges faced and overcome with the support of her family. Suzuki was born in Yokohoma, Japan, but when she was four, her family — including her parents and two older brothers — moved to New Jersey for her father’s work. It was there that Suzuki was introduced to hockey.“My two older brothers started playing in New Jersey, so I just went along and started to play, too,” Suzuki explained.When the family moved back to Yokohoma three years later, hockey became more of a struggle. Due to the popularity of figure skating and the lack of hockey rinks, the only ice times for hockey practices were either really early in the morning or, in seven-year-old Suzuki’s case, later at night from 9 to 10:30 p.m.“I wasn’t a huge fan of it,” Suzuki recalled. “It was so late at night and then I had to go to school the next day. … I loved playing games and I loved the game of hockey, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy those practices.”It may have been Suzuki and her brothers on the ice, but their parents made it happen. Every weekend in the winter, Suzuki’s father would drive her and her brothers three hours north where a massive outdoor ice pad was installed. On Saturday and Sunday, the Suzukis would hit the ice and hone their skills. At night they’d sleep over at their great-aunt’s home.“We’d practise all day, pretty well every week in the winter,” Suzuki said. “It’s pretty common to really commit to one sport in Japan, so [driving the six hours for practice every week] wasn’t really a new thing to do.When it became obvious that Suzuki and her brother Madoka were excelling in hockey, the family made a tough but important call. In 2014, they decided to split up their family and have Chihiro, Madoka and their mother move to North America while her father and oldest brother stayed in Japan. Suzuki said they were originally going to move to the U.S. but were contacted by a Belleville woman who was supporting Japanese families that chose to move there.“[My dad] comes over at least once a year, but it’s hard,” Suzuki said. “He’s coming over at the end of this year to watch us play.The move has been a success for both Chihiro and Madoka. Currently sitting with four goals and six points in 14 games with the Wellington Dukes of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, Madoka previously played with the OJHL’s Cobourg Cougars and minor hockey in the Quinte Red Devils AAA system. The brother and sister now have a friendly rivalry, and the family’s support motivates them to push farther.“It’s hard for both sides: for [my dad] not seeing us or living with us, and then it’s hard to see him, not struggle, but just seeing him wanting to see us really motivates me,” Suzuki said. “I have to keep working hard and I can’t be slacking.”Suzuki attends Nicholson Catholic College in Belleville and travels to Kingston up to four times a week for games, on-ice practice and off-ice training. In the summer, she also plays competitive softball, this past summer with the Tavistock Athletics, near Kitchener. She competed with the team as it went to the Ontario Summer Games held in London in early August.“There’s a lot of learn from playing a bunch of different sports, and I simply enjoy playing different sports, too,” Suzuki said. “For hockey, I had trouble staying focused during the game. But in softball, when I’m up to bat, I usually tell myself the situation: one out, bases loaded — I just tell myself what is going on.“I’ve taken that into hockey. When I’m on the bench, I’ll tell myself what is going on and what I have to do on the ice.”Another challenge Suzuki had to overcome was the tremendous disappointment of not making the Ice Wolves midget AA team in the 2017-18 season. She’d worked hard but was passed over, likely because she was new to the Kingston organization, Sweet said. Instead, she made the midget A team and left coach Doug Kane wondering where she’d come from during the tryouts. She finished last season and left that team with a solid nine goals and 12 assists over 22 games.“I’m proud of myself, but now I have to adjust to the speed and power and intensity of the game,” Suzuki said. “It’s my goal to be able to produce on the ice and to be a positive influence on the [junior] team.”While most of the junior girls get to the team by first paying AA, when another player decided not to return this season, Suzuki was added to the 2018-19 roster.“I liked what I saw. She’s very smart, she plays the role well,” Sweet said. “She knows her time will come. It being her first year, it’s a big adjustment for her coming from midget A to the provincial team.”To move up the depth chart, Sweet said Suzuki will have to do more than her teammates. Her goal is to receive a scholarship to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the U.S. or at a Canadian university (U Sports).“If we work out twice a week as a team, she should be working out more,” Sweet said. “She should be the first one on the ice, the last one off in practice. She needs to continue to watch other girls that she’s looking up to, to continue to try to improve. Then, of course, putting in the time at the gym, strength, conditioning and always working on her shot.“The main thing is keeping her positive attitude. … It’s still early, she still has another year in the league. She’s got time.”This weekend the Ice Wolves head on another road trip to visit the Durham West Lightning on Saturday and the Barrie Sharks on Sunday.