By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 9 (Reuters) - The score did not go their way but 'Smile Japan,' as the country's ice hockey team are known, were sporting ear-to-ear grins after a long-awaited Olympic return on Sunday.
The team arrived in Sochi eager to erase the disappointment of losing all five games during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where they qualified automatically as the host nation.
Despite a 1-0 loss to a bigger, stronger Swedish team, that featured four players from silver medal-winning squad of the 2006 Olympics, the Japanese were far from downhearted.
"Sweden are high in the rankings and we gave everything to beat them but unfortunately we didn't quite make it," a smiling Yoko Kondo told reporters.
Japan flags, many with 'Smile Japan' written across it, were a popular sight at Shayba Arena during the game and Japanese supporters made themselves heard every time the team went near the Swedish net.
The Japanese players heard the overwhelming support but were unable to transfer that energy onto the ice and looked out of sorts from the very start.
"We couldn't start from the very beginning of the game as we planned to start, and the next game we plan to concentrate and play very well from the beginning of the game," Chiho Osawa, captain of the Japan team, told reporters.
"But the support of the crowd did help us a lot. They were supporting us and they gave us enough energy when we were trying to score so it was really helping."
The team may need to draw some inspiration from their happy nickname, which they gave themselves when things got tough in Olympic qualifying, before Tuesday's game against Russia.
"We were so nervous (during qualifying) and everyone was so stiff that smile was the best medicine for the situation and so we decided to give ourselves another name," Kondo, the only remaining player from the 1998 Nagano team, said when asked about the team's nickname.
Kondo, who will turn 35 on Thursday, is a calming influence on her less-experienced team mates and she plans to keep them relaxed and focused on their goal of reaching the knockout phase of the tournament.
"As the only player on our team who has Olympic Games experience I want to show to my colleagues on the team that you may be nervous and you may be afraid sometimes but you must do your best," said Kondo.
"And in this sense, today's game was a first lesson for them and for us as a team."
Japan will also play Germany in group play and will need to finish in the top two to reach the quarter-finals. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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