There was probably no better feeling for Mike Mondin than getting both feet back on Canadian soil on Tuesday.
The Trail native and J.L. Crowe teacher is the head coach of the Canadian sledge hockey team, which happened to be playing in a tournament in Nagano, Japan when last week’s devastating earthquake hit the country.
The Canadian team was in the first period of its game against the U.S. last Thursday (Friday in Japan) when the 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit the Sendai region, which is about 300km from Nagano.
“We didn’t know it at ice level but the people in the stands could feel it,” recalled Mondin.
“Then we looked up and there was a speaker system, a big ball of speakers close to 30 feet in diameter, and that thing was swaying at least 10 feet.”
That alone was enough to prompt officials to call a timeout and assess the situation.
“The players went to the benches and they did a check on the arena.
“We’re watching this ball of speakers swaying back and forth. Then 10 minutes later we resumed play.”
The team was told that the arena, which was constructed for the 1998 Winter Olympics, was built to the highest earthquake standards in Japan.
“He said, ‘If that building were to come down every building in Japan would come down.’ So we felt safe in that regard.”
Even following the game, when the team returned to the hotel, Mondin said there was nothing out of the ordinary in the city streets that would indicate an epic disaster had struck only a few hundred kilometres away.
“Everything in town was just so normal. The trains were running, the bus system was working, and all the stores were still open.”
It was only when they got back in their rooms that they saw the reports from CNN and the footage of the tsunami.
“It was a shock,” he said.
“We were told we were safe from the tsunami because we were so high up in the mountains.”
But the earthquake fears didn’t subside.
“At 4 a.m. (Japanese time) we felt the earthquake that was in Nagano prefecture, which was 46km from the hotel,” recalled Mondin.
“We were told it was a separate earthquake.
“It was 6.4 on the Richter scale and we were on the seventh floor of the hotel and it shook really well. And it was really loud.”
Mondin and other team officials checked the hallways all wondering what to do next.
“We waited and nobody else got up, none of the Japanese officials. So we just went back to bed.
“Then about half an hour later there was an aftershock.”
That was enough to convince the staff to get all the players up and meet in the lobby where they were joined by the American team.
“We met with the host committee and the Japanese Paralympic
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Committee and they assured us we were very safe.”
As the team began weighing their options, Mondin said team manager Adam Crockett began studying every possible option for getting the team safely out of the country.
“We were told by the Japanese if we went to the airport it would be utter chaos. It would be pointless.”
While everyone was fixated on the television reports, after a day off to inspect the facilities, the tournament resumed where Canada finished with a silver medal on Monday.
“The players went about their business and played hockey,” said Mondin. “We knew we were in such a safe environment in Nagano and looked after so well by the Japanese host.”
Although they were in shock to see the CNN reports, Mondin reiterated there was nothing visible in Nagano that gave indication of the rampant destruction elsewhere.
“The players would make the comment, ‘there’s nothing wrong where we are.’ It’s almost like it was in a whole different country.”
He said even the three-hour trek to the Tokyo airport failed to give any signs of the crisis unfolding in other parts of the country.
“On the bus ride from Nagano to the Tokyo airport we never saw any destruction or damage. Our bus went through downtown Tokyo and we never saw any broken glass in buildings no roads were damaged. It was business as usual.
At the airport, Mondin said Air Canada had resumed regular flights the next day and by the time the team flew out on Tuesday, everything went according to plan. However, he did see glimpses of the airport chaos predicted by officials in Nagano.
“There were still people sleeping in the airport trying to get out.”
While things may have been fine in Nagano, the entire Canadian squad had some anxious family members back home very worried about their state.
“Everybody (at home) was watching CNN so it was hard to convince them (we were fine),” said Mondin.
“There was a lot of communication going back and forth. Our manager sent out a report to family contacts on a daily basis and the list was extensive.”
Even though he’s back in the comfort of his Trail home, Mondin said he’s still reassuring concerned family and friends that he’s fine.