Halifax coach J.P. MacCallum is back home a champion, after leading the Tohoku Free Blades to the Asia League Ice Hockey championship. The team, based in the Japanese city of Hachinohe, swept a South Korean squad in the final, winning their second title in three years.
MacCallum, who played and was an assistant coach at Saint Mary’s, says Japan may not be a hockey powerhouse, but interest in the game is growing, driven largely by the women’s team qualifying for the Sochi Olympics. “Because there are only four teams in Japan [of nine in the league], there’s a high level of play,” he explains. “Players are on the smaller side, but they could skate circles around a lot of North Americans. Strength on the stick is where they need the most help.”
MacCallum previously coached in Hungary. He thinks the Free Blades recruited him partly for his emphasis on strength and conditioning. (In the off-season he trains Boston Bruin Brad Marchand, along with rising talents like Los Angeles Kings prospect Andrew Bodnarchuk and Moosehead Morgan Nauss.)
Mara Panacci, MacCallum’s wife, also signed on with the Free Blades as yoga instructor and nutritionist. “They’d never done yoga before, but they loved it,” he says.
When Tohoku won the championship in 2013, MacCallum’s first year, “it kind of rocked the Japanese hockey world, because traditionally the hockey powers have been from Hokkaido. Next year was a tough follow-up, but this year our third goalie became our number one and took us all the way.”
MacCallum says one one of the only negatives in the Japanese game is the level of diving and officials falling for it. But the league brings in more experienced North American refs for the post-season. “That suits my team well,” he says. “We play hard, we don’t dive, and we get treated well in the playoffs.”