SOCHI, Russia — The Japanese women's hockey team was at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Slovakia when assistant coach Carla MacLeod noticed that the players seemed tense.
"So I took them outside for a snowball fight," she said. "I said to them, 'The smiles you have on your faces, that's how I want you to play.'"
Japan won the tournament to earn a spot at the Sochi Games — the first time in the country's history that it had played its way into the Olympics in women's hockey.
And that's how "Smile Japan" was born.
"They're the smiley-est group I've ever known," said MacLeod, a Canadian who won gold medals at the 2006 and '10 Olympics and went to Japan to help them develop their women's hockey program. "So that's fitting that that's how they are known."
Not very many women play hockey in Japan — only 2,108 women in a country of 126 million, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation — and the country's only appearance in the Olympic women's hockey tournament was when it received a berth in the 1998 Nagano Games as the host nation. That Japanese team finished last, losing all five games by a combined score of 45-2.
So MacLeod was brought in to share some of the techniques that have made Canada a three-time Olympic champion and one of two — with the United States — women's hockey powers in the world. She brought in structure from the Canadian development camps. She taught them to be aggressive, instead of playing to avoid a loss.
And she taught them to smile.
"Positive energy for anyone is a great thing," MacLeod said.
It hasn't always been easy.
MacLeod estimated not too long ago that she knew 30 Japanese words. Few of the players speak English, so when the other coaches aren't around to translate, "We just look at each other awkwardly," MacLeod joked. And when MacLeod struggled to figure out when it was appropriate in Japanese culture to bow, "it was so cute that it made us smile," forward Yuri Adachi said.
"They thought it was funny, so they added it to their goal celebration," MacLeod said.
Alas, in Sochi the team was only able to bring out the goal celebration one time: After scoring a fluky goal early in the third period against Russia to tie the score, the players on the ice formed a circle and bowed to each other. That and the fact that they spent their last practice before the games horsing around with folding chairs on the ice led the American website Deadspin.com to label them the "lovable underdogs at the Olympics."
Fans hung banners saying "Smile Japan" over the railings at the Shayba Arena, and the players did their best to maintain a happy face despite losing all three games by a combined score of 7-1. Japan was eliminated from medal contention — a longshot anyway in a sport dominated by North Americans and Scandinavians — and now moves to the classification stage, where it can finish no better than fifth.
"We hoped to get a better result, but we are still positive," Adachi said through an interpreter on Thursday, when Japan lost 4-0 to Germany to finish the round-robin winless. "We wanted to make our fans smile for us. Despite this, we hope we can still make them smile."
They've already won over MacLeod.
The two-time Olympian said she was happier seeing her players walk into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony than she was to do it herself. Twenty of the 21 members of the Japanese team are at their first Olympics — only defenseman Yoko Kondo was around when the country finished last in Nagano.
"Seeing the girls walking in is probably one of the coolest moments I've ever experienced at the Olympics," MacLeod said. "It was very, very emotional. These girls worked so hard, and I knew what it feels like to live your dream."