Between the two of them, Team Canada alumnae Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara helped carry the expectations of an entire nation for almost a quarter-century.
Now retired from the Canadian National Women’s Team, the duo – who has combined to win 6 Olympic gold medals and two silvers, plus 14 World Championship golds – gladly displayed their well-earned hardware for a gathering of hockey history buffs at the Ultimate Leafs Fan museum last month.
Hefford, 39, is one of only two Canadians along with Hayley Wickenheiser, to earn an Olympic medal in each of the first five Games in which women’s hockey has been contested, beginning in 1998. The mother of two grew up in Kingston, Ontario and followed in the footsteps of her hockey-playing dad Larry, and brother Mike, while her mother Sandra managed and coached the local teams.
“Growing up as a young girl, I always just loved hockey. It’s a passion I’ve had for as long as I can remember,” Hefford said.
Sunohara, 46, a native of Scarborough, Ontario, retired in 2008 after winning a pair of Olympic golds to go along with seven titles at the Women’s World Championships. Her second title at the Worlds in 1997 coincided with Hefford’s rookie season with the national team.
The following year the pair became teammates with the Brampton Thunder of the first National Women’s Hockey League, forming an effective scoring line along with Lori Dupuis, also an eventual Olympic gold medallist.
Sunohara said that the defining moment, from her perspective, for the legitimacy of women’s hockey came at the Games in Nagano, eight years after she won her first World Championship while donning some rather gimmicky apparel.
“In 1990 we had a lot of fans. It was a really electric crowd. We were wearing white and pink uniforms, but it opened doors a lot,” she said of the inaugural tournament in Ottawa at which Canada claimed gold. “Maybe in 1998 when it became an Olympic sport, you had a little bit more respect, in people watching.”
The North American teams continue to dominate the sport. Canada and the United States have been the finalists at every World Championship and all but one of the Olympics (2006 – Canada vs. Sweden).
Hefford offered her insight into the discrepancy that continually sees the European squads finish no higher than third place, year after year.
“I think there are many countries that don’t have a freedom that we have in North America,
she said. “I think that the access to facilities and coaching is a factor. Alexei Yashin brought a lot of credibility to Russia, and they won a bronze (in 2013, and again 2016).
The problem is that we keep getting better, and the Americans keep getting better. But our sport is still very young. The early Olympic (men’s) games were blowout games.”
Of course, many fans on both sides of the border remember vividly the 2014 Olympic gold medal game in Sochi, Russia that was all but decided by the width of the goal post of an empty net.
Hefford described the mood on the Canadian bench as focused and task-driven, as opposed to anxious.
“We ended up getting in a pretty good hole, two goals down,” she said. “In a team sport, one person panics a little, then two and three, and then it snowballs. We didn’t have that. There was a sense of calm on our bench. We just continued to do our job. Once (Brianne Jenner) scored, momentum was on our side, and (Marie-Philip Poulin) scored to tie it. We could have won it in regulation.”
The Canadians were more than pumped for the ensuing overtime, having practiced the scenario numerous times in places like Grand Prairie and Lloydminster, Alberta in the months leading up to the Sochi Games.
“We played 50 games going into the Olympics, 30 games against midget AAA boys all over small-town Alberta,” Hefford said. “Every single one of those games, we played five minutes of 4-on-4 overtime, and a shootout. We did that because there was a slight chance we could get into that situation for an Olympic gold medal.
That preparation gave us confidence, and allowed us to just go out with a sense of calm and play the game.”
Indeed, after American Hilary Knight took a penalty for tripping Wickenheiser on a breakaway, Poulin fired home the game-winner on a power play, sending Canada into ecstatic celebration.
“When we got the goal to win it, we earned it, we didn’t get lucky. It was so hard throughout the year, and we just kept digging and digging, and it was a really rewarding victory. I’d never played in that kind of game with that kind of momentum swing,” Hefford said.
The victory was Canada’s fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal win, extending the country’s unbeaten streak at the Games dating back to the final in 1998 when it lost to – who else – the United States.
The heated, bitter rivalry can also be complementary, as Hefford noted, citing that national archenemies are often teammates on NCAA or CWHL teams. “We need each other to grow the game. There’s a level of respect there,” Hefford said.
Of course there was no love lost at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City when accusations surfaced that Team USA had placed the Canadian flag on their dressing room floor.
“Somebody told us about this flag incident,” Hefford recalled. “After the fact, some of us heard that it wasn’t true. Whether it was given to us as motivation, maybe that was the case.
I’ve gotten to know (2002 Team USA captain) Cammi Granato. I’ve got the utmost respect for her. I don’t see her doing something like that. Ultimately, from anyone I’ve spoken to said it didn’t happen, so you have to believe it. But at the time, it was certainly motivation.”
The inclusion of women’s hockey in the Olympics has been the catalyst in the exponential increase in the number of girls playing on both sides of the border. Both veterans marveled at the skill set exhibited by the next generation of forthcoming stars.
“Good thing I played when I did, because now I wouldn’t make it!” Sunohara said.
Neither player was ever paid as a professional for lacing up the skates. Even as the old NWHL transitioned to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the players continued to take to the ice without compensation.
The new four-team National Women’s Hockey League, formed in the United States in 2015, became the first women’s circuit to pay its players. But after only one season, the business model has shown signs of instability.
Hefford shared her vision of the ideal professional league.
“There needs to be one league, four to six teams, and you’ve got to get the best players in the world; the best Finnish players, the best Swedish players, the best Russian players,” she said.
“That’s how the game is going to grow. The challenges are being able to bring them here, and pay them, and get them work visas. It’s not really feasible otherwise. But the key is getting the best players, and hopefully those players can bring back to their countries what they learned.”
Sunohara concurred: “I don’t know how close they are, but it’s got to be one league for sure.”
And, what women’s hockey discussion wouldn’t be complete, even 14 years after the fact, without ranting at the American referee who nearly cost Canada a gold medal in Salt Lake City?
Stacy Livingston, the official who called eight straight penalties against the Canadians in the gold medal game in 2002, didn’t make any friends north of the border.
But Sunohara recalled that – on the bench – the team remained poised and resilient.
“We were so focused. It doesn’t do any good to yell at the refs,” Sunohara said “ At that time, our coaches didn’t complain. We were all on the same page, everybody just did their job. It didn’t give the players a reason to panic. We probably thought we’d get the next call, or the next one, or the next. But it was just ‘go on the ice, and do your job.’”
Hefford opined that Livingston was placed in a scenario that exceeded the official’s capabilities.
“I think one of the problems is that the higher ups think that the women’s games should have women refs,” she said. “And I’m all for developing female refs, but until they’re ready to ref at that level, then they’ve got to earn it. I think they’re putting some of these officials into a situation that they’re not prepared for.
As an athlete, I want the best coach and the best referee, and I don’t care if it’s a woman or a man.”
To end the night, Hefford reflected on the unnecessary ‘controversy’ created when the Canadians celebrated with beer and cigars after defeating the United States on home soil at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“Is there anyone here that wouldn’t have a beer after four years of training?” she asked.
No one at the gathering volunteered to say ‘yes’.
Instead, those in attendance eagerly posed for photographs with Hefford, Sunohara, and their medals, grateful for the opportunity to hear from a pair of ambassadors in a sport that only continues to grow.
Full audio of Women’s Hockey Night at the Ultimate Leafs Fan museum:
(left-to-right Jayna Hefford, Mike Wilson, and Vicky Sunohara. Photo credit: Facebook)