Vicky Sunohara leads her team from the bench. PHOTO BY MARTIN BAZYL, COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

As the 2018 Winter Olympics draw near, University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s hockey head coach Vicky Sunohara reflects on the highs and lows of competing in the Olympics.

Twenty years ago, as a member of the Canadian women’s hockey team, Vicky Sunohara lost to the United States in the inaugural women’s hockey tournament during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Sunohara says she was devastated after losing that hockey game, a combination of not only the magnitude of the event but the personal importance playing in Japan meant to her.

Sunohara’s first Olympic experience brought her closer to home in a familial sense. The extended family of her late father — who passed away when she was only seven — lived just 80 kilometres away from where the games were being held.

“I encountered many family members and relatives [who] I didn’t even know existed. It was just pretty special to be there and it’s just funny how things happen,” says Sunohara.

Sunohara rebounded four years later, as Canada beat the United States in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City. The lead up to the 2002 Winter Olympics was a challenging one for Canada — who lost eight straight exhibition games to the Americans, not to mention that the games were held five months after 9/11, adding to the already heightened importance of the event. The taxing journey, however, made the end result all the more special for Sunohara.

“There were so many things that were a part of our journey that were difficult to manage,” recalls Sunohara. She describes the experience of beating the defending champions at home, as “a great experience, and very special.”

Sunohara returned with Canada for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, an Olympics she knew, deep down, would be her last. That year, she played on a line affectionately nicknamed the ‘Old Dogs’ alongside Cassie Campbell and Danielle Goyette, two other veteran players and Canadian legends in their own right. The fact that it was her last Olympics made everything feel all the more special.

The tournament marked a big year for the growth of women’s hockey; Canada defeated Sweden for gold, breaking up the prospect of a third consecutive Canada-US gold medal final, as the United States instead earned bronze.

In Italy, Sunohara was surrounded by her teammates and family. While her last Olympics would be memorable no matter what, Canada winning their second consecutive gold medal was the perfect ending to her Olympic career.

“I wanted the moment to kind of stand still,” she explains.

Sunohara brings the lessons learned from her Olympic experiences with her everywhere she goes, from her hockey camp in Whitby, Ontario to her current role as head coach of the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team. “Those Olympic values are what we hold here at the University of Toronto,” she says.

Sunohara believes in teaching what she defines as “Olympic values,” naming integrity, accountability, and commitment as a few key traits. “It’s more than just teaching a wrist shot or slap shot; it’s teaching the team, it’s teaching anybody that I have the opportunity to be in contact with those Olympic values.”

It’s a big responsibility to pass these values on, but it’s one that she’s happy to have. Being able to share her experiences with young players is one of the reasons that she became a coach. As she got older and felt less able to compete at the highest level, she turned to coaching and found that she loved it. “It was a whole different side of how I looked at the game and what I’ve done and what I can do.”

Sunohara has coached and mentored players at a variety of ages and skill levels, from national-level camps down to kids who just want to make their local rep team, and she finds it all gratifying.

“I felt it rewarding, being able to give back and to help these younger players possibly experience the dreams that I lived.” She tries to instil in her players more than just skills, and through Olympic values also endeavours to “teach them to be better people.”

The Blues have had an up and down season. Despite this, Sunohara feels that by pacing themselves, they’ll have a shot at the playoffs.

“We’re talking about having a playoff mentality right now,” she adds. “Every game is important.”

With the NHL opting not to send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is potential for more focus to be centred on the women’s hockey tournament. Media coverage can be hugely influential in sports — Sunohara remembers what it was like following the inclusion of women’s hockey in the Olympics in 1998 and the boom of female registration that this inclusion in the media created. “I want to say 200 per cent or something, registration grew.”

As women’s hockey continues to grow, the focus turns to keeping girls involved in the game as they get older. For Sunohara, the key to continued involvement lies in creating opportunities for female coaches and mentors in the game.

Since Sunohara has started coaching in Ontario University Athletics, she believes that more female coaches have become involved, a step in the right direction. For her, it all comes back to the league creating the opportunities.

“The opportunity to teach, an opportunity to coach, to teach skills. I think that that definitely will keep females involved in the game.”

Recent Varsity Blues captain and U of T graduate Alessandra Bianchi highlights the success of the Blues women’s hockey program. Bianchi was selected by the Toronto Furies in the 11th round of the 2017 Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) Draft.

Sunohara takes pride in Bianchi’s growth but understands that playing hockey at the next level won’t be the case for all of her players.

“It’s really cool,” comments Sunohara. “I feel very fortunate to be a part of it… it’s not just playing hockey at the next level, it’s seeing what they do and how they’ve gone on and started their careers.”

Ahead of Pyeongchang, Sunohara is excited by the prospect of the tournament. She highlights Canada’s decision to play in a midget-triple A boys’ league in Alberta as a key part of the team’s preparation, especially for the United States. In order for the team to win their fifth straight gold medal, Canada must first deal with the speed and skill of America’s high-powered offense, led by Hilary Knight and Amanda Kessel. Sunohara notes that goaltending has been one of the team’s biggest strengths, a key factor that may prove the difference for Canada.

“From goaltending up, they’ve got speed, talent, depth. I think they really think that in the exhibition games they had to figure out the speed and the skill of the Americans… and their offense.”

Women’s hockey has grown exponentially since 1998, and Sunohara, who sits on the board of directors for the CWHL, is looking toward the future. This year, the CWHL is paying its players a salary, something that Sunohara says the league is trying to implement in the right way. In terms of the future, she is optimistic that there are enough players and talent to create one professional league where currently there are many, with the CWHL and the US-based National Women’s Hockey League among them.

“We’ve got to find a way to have all the best players playing, and I think that we could have a very successful professional league, and perhaps be part of the NHL.”

“I think that those things are coming… I believe that it’s a matter of time.”

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