With little luck attracting funding and new players to the sport, the Japanese para ice hockey team has been facing challenges away from the arena despite the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics getting ever nearer.

Successful efforts to enhance the recognition of para sports ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games have led to increased sponsorship deals, but next March's Winter Paralympics have yet to move out of the shadows of their summer counterpart.

The Japan men's ice hockey team will be making its first Paralympics appearance since 2010, but Masaharu Kumagai, who plays for the Nagano Thunderbirds, says in reality the players are struggling to survive.

"To be honest our situation hasn't changed. I envy the athletes, like those in wheelchair tennis, who get to be on television," said Kumagai, 42, who scored a team-high four goals during the qualifiers in October.


In the Paralympic version of ice hockey, which uses double-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass beneath, Japan earned a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

But the athletes were forced out of the spotlight quickly, and fund-raisers and crowd-funding on the internet were held to deal with operating budget issues and to make ends meet.

Struggles to draw younger athletes to the sport still continue with the average age of the current team, which includes a player who has been forced to come out of retirement, surpassing 40. The oldest player on the team is 60.

Kuniko Obinata, who will head the para delegation in South Korea, stressed the importance of the success of the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics, saying it will be a pivotal factor in the success of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics.

"People have fewer opportunities to watch winter sports (compared to summer sports). Before we start thinking about Tokyo it's important that we put our very best efforts into Pyeongchang," she said.