“My wisdom teeth were impacted,” Sunohara explained. “They were so swollen and my face was blown up. I had to go see a dentist and get on penicillin and painkillers. Even having my helmet on, I felt it. I was a little bit of a mess! So that brings back some not-fond memories.”
However, when Canada captured the gold medal with a 5-2 win over the United States on 25 March at the Ottawa Civic Centre, it was all worth it. And this year, we’re marking the 30th anniversary of that historic tournament.
“I’m stuck on 30 years!” Sunohara said. “That, to me, is outrageous. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. But it was a dream come true, being able to play for your country. I’d grown up thinking, ‘I want to be the first woman to play in the NHL.’ I always imitated players like Wayne Gretzky. There wasn’t a women’s Team Canada. When your dream finally becomes a reality, it’s pretty exciting.”
Nowadays, Sunohara is making different dreams come true with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. The Scarborough-born 49-year-old has spent nine seasons as the head coach of the women’s hockey team. Despite having nine first-year players, the Varsity Blues won the 2020 OUA (Ontario University Athletics) championship. Sunohara was named the U Sports Coach of the Year at a gala in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in March.
Unfortunately, her team didn’t get to go for a national title due to the COVID-19 shutdown. So in between conducting end-of-season Zoom meetings and home-schooling her kids, the two-time Olympic gold medalist has had ample opportunity to reflect on 1990.
Her desire to compete in Ottawa was actually sparked when an unofficial world championship was held in Toronto in 1987. She was a flagbearer at that tournament – ironically enough, for the archrival Americans. “But I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! I don’t want to be a flagbearer. I want to play!’”
In Ottawa, Sunohara didn’t care that Canada wore eye-popping pink uniforms instead of the traditional colours. The players were treated like celebrities, including visiting Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn at his Rideau Hall residence.
For Sunohara, it was the confident presence of the 1990 veterans that stood out: “Our Kid Line was super-excited: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah! Let’s go!’ But I had a lot of older, veteran players and great leaders around me. Sue Scherer was our captain. She and France St-Louis were very calm and focused. Ditto for Shirley Cameron.”
That low panic threshold paid off as the tournament wore on. Finland had never beaten Canada in a Women’s Worlds semi-final until 2019’s 4-2 win in Espoo, but not everyone remembers that the Finns came awfully close in the 1990 semi-final too. They fought back from deficits of 4-1 and 6-3, and Canada squeaked out a 6-5 victory.
“I think we outshot them by quite a bit, but their goaltender Liisa-Maria Sneck was really good,” Sunohara said. “They definitely had some great players. I remember them clearly. Sari Krooks played in our league in Toronto, and everybody knew she was fast and a really good player. There was also Riikka Nieminen [now Sallinen]. They often had very skilled teams, and games were really close at many World Championships.”
Women’s hockey is a small world. In the gold medal game, Sunohara saw plenty of familiar faces on the American team. It went beyond Cammi Granato, then a Providence College freshman who had edged her out for the 1990 NCAA scoring title with 46 points to Sunohara’s 44.
“Don McLeod, my coach at Northeastern, was the coach of the U.S. team,” Sunohara said. “I had played with and against a whole bunch of those girls on their team. I remember Cindy Curley [who set the single-tournament record with 23 points] and Tina Cardinale were very, very good. It was an amazing atmosphere in the final. I thought: ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen the stands full at a women’s hockey game.’ It was electric in the building. You’re playing for a World Championship gold medal.”
Blueliner Geraldine Heaney, who joined James and Granato in the first IIHF Hall of Fame women’s class (2008), scored the golden goal for Canada. It was a spectacular second-period solo effort that sent her flying through the air. The ecstatic cheers of the Civic Centre crowd of 8,784 still echo in Sunohara’s mind.
This seven-time world champion, who won her last gold medal in Winnipeg in 2007, likes to catch up with Heaney and James at events. She also sees Schuler when she’s scouting and recruiting for the Varsity Blues. She sent defender Judy Diduck a “Happy Birthday” text on 21 April.
Sunohara is at peace with that approach, but adds a small caveat: “In 1990, they didn’t play with bodychecking in [European] countries. So I don’t think that was so fair. The only kind of reason I’d specifically want it in is because it would make it a bit more consistent with the officiating. Sometimes you see games and it looks like they’re bodychecking – there’s so much contact. And then some games, it’s called all the time. But besides that, I think our game is really physical without bodychecking. That’s positive. Then, you also see the finesse and the hockey plays. Even in the NHL, they’re going away from the cheap shots. Contact is used for a reason. Same thing in women’s hockey. You can still make contact, but you’re not trying to kill somebody or lay them out with an open-ice hit.”
Sunohara had been looking forward to celebrating the 30th anniversary of 1990. A reunion of Canada’s 2006 Olympic and 2007 Women’s Worlds teams was scheduled for Halifax in April. Of course, those plans were scuttled when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of this year’s Women’s Worlds. She felt sorry, not just for the players who missed out on going for gold, but for the Nova Scotia youngsters who didn’t get to meet great female role models.
When Canada won gold in Halifax in 2004, the year after the Women’s Worlds in Beijing were cancelled due to the SARS outbreak, Sunohara and her teammates made a long-term impact: “We went to schools to talk to kids about teamwork and the World Championships and what it was like to play for Team Canada. Jill Saulnier was at a school where some of my teammates had gone to speak, and she told me years later: ‘I’ll never forget that.’”
Looking to the future, Sunohara is clear on what she sees as the biggest issue facing her sport now: “Getting everybody that wants the best for women’s hockey to go in the right direction.”
Despite tremendous worldwide growth over the last 30 years, women’s hockey has faced plenty of roadblocks. Sunohara, who remains a top-10 all-time Canadian scorer with 119 points in 164 career national team games, also starred with the Brampton Thunder, the predecessor of the now-defunct CWHL’s Markham Thunder. She knows how hard it can be to get traction for the women’s pro game.
Sunohara remains committed to the vision that former Team Canada superstar Jayna Hefford is promoting as an operations consultant with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). The PWHPA includes U.S. and Canadian Olympians and others who committed not to participate in any North American pro league in 2019-20. They’re seeking a more sustainable alternative, preferably in partnership with the NHL.
Sunohara praised Hefford: “She played for the crest on the front of her jersey and not the name on her back, and she wants what’s best for the game. She wants young girls to have what we didn’t have. I’m 100 per cent on board. I talk to her all the time. We’ve seen different models and ideas, and everything the PWHPA is doing is from their hearts. That’s why she’s leading the charge in this. She’s not going to get a chance to play in a true professional league herself, but she’s doing everything that she believes in, everything she can to get it there. I’m behind her 100 per cent.”
Hockey is equal parts pain and glory. While it could still be a couple of years before that vision comes to fruition, you can tell Vicky Sunohara will keep on promoting women’s hockey the way she has for the last 30 years.