icky Sunohara’s hockey career has seen her accomplish many significant firsts in the game.
She was one of Canada’s first big women’s hockey stars. She competed in the first-ever women’s hockey world championship in 1990, one of the first tournaments to establish the women’s game — and her dominance in it — on the international stage. She skated at the first-ever Olympic women’s tournament in 1998 and then, four years later, helped lead Canada to its first gold at the Games.
It’s because of the legendary forward and three-time Olympian that the Sunohara name is forever written into the story of hockey in Canada. But as she reflects on her journey through the sport and her deep family ties within it, she understands she was not the first of her family to fall in love with the game. It was her father, Dave Sunohara, who paved the way for her — a fact that fills her with pride — and it was a shared passion for hockey that brought the family together after his passing when Vicky was just seven years old.
Sunohara, who has coached the University of Toronto Varsity Blues for more than a decade, spoke with Sportsnet about the connection with her late father hockey still provides and how her heritage as a person of Japanese and Ukrainian descent has shaped her career as a player and coach.
SPORTSNET: Your love of hockey was first realized through your dad. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Sunohara: My dad introduced me to hockey really, really young. I think I have recordings of us playing in the basement when I was just like one-and-a-half — I wasn’t even two years old. As soon as he introduced me to it, that’s all I wanted to do. My dad passed away when I was seven. He was my hockey coach. Most of the memories that I have with him are playing hockey or waiting till he got home from work and bringing him down in the basement to play. He made a rink in our backyard and he also took care of the rink at our public school. So, at night when all the kids had finished, he’d go and shovel and flood the rink to make sure it was good for the next day. I used to go and tag along with him when I could.
And then hearing, as I got older, that he really loved it, and reading articles about him. He loved the game. He did very well. He actually played at Ryerson [now called Toronto Metropolitan University]. When we went to play there, as I was coaching with U. of T., I was just looking at this trophy case and there was a whole bunch of photos from a long time ago and sure enough, two championship photos have my dad in the picture. So, definitely, I share his passion for the game. I know he loved it and I’m just grateful he introduced me to it because I’ve loved it ever since.
Did you have an understanding, when you were younger, of how much success he’d had in hockey himself?
I really didn’t know. And it wasn’t until I got older that people started telling me — some of his friends and my uncles — about how good a hockey player he was and how much he loved it. My uncles told me that he got a scholarship to go to Michigan State to go play hockey, and that was back in the mid-‘50s, [when] I think that it was maybe not as popular as it is today to get scholarships to go to the U.S. So that was pretty cool to hear.
My grandparents moved to [Ontario] after being in the internment camps in B.C., they really had nothing. I believe that my aunt and uncles had to do their part to help out around the house and help my grandparents make ends meet, and he wanted to stick around and help. And so he never ended up going, but obviously he had an opportunity to play at Ryerson.
When did your grandparents move to Canada?
They were in B.C. at the time of the Second World War.
They moved to Canada and they had five boys and one girl, so a big family. But there’s no doubt a lot of struggles … All the Japanese-Canadians, they took them out of their homes, they took away everything and put them in these internment camps. I don’t know the exact date when they were released, but they were in because of the war.
You mention your uncles and aunt sharing stories with you, and bonding over a shared love of hockey. What did it mean to your family to then see the Sunohara name on the back of a national team sweater?
I don’t think that I realized how special and how thankful and grateful I was to have them until I got a little bit older. And honestly, it was awesome to have them because, you know, as you grow up, you don’t see your relatives as much, I don’t think, and especially if they live far away. So, it was almost like a reunion when there was a world championship or an Olympics or hockey games, or even when I was playing for my club team, if we made it to nationals or things like that, it seemed to bring my uncles and aunts together wherever I played. So, hockey is something, I think, that has really kept our family together. Even now my aunt and uncle come to my boys’ games, and my cousins will come out and support as much as they can. So, it’s kind of been, I guess, hockey’s been the glue that’s kept our family together.
This has clearly always been a family affair for you, but did you always feel welcome in hockey?
As I grew up, there were times where I encountered, for sure, some racist comments and name-calling. A lot of times I didn’t really understand it. I just wanted to play. I loved to play…. There were a few times where I got really upset. Since my dad passed away, my mom, who is Ukrainian, she would be the one taking me to games and things like that. There were times when I was young, where I was like, ‘Gosh, I just want them to stop. Why couldn’t I just look like my mom and nobody would call me names?’ They would actually sometimes say, ‘Oh, you must be adopted’ and things like that. It didn’t happen a lot, but I do remember being upset hearing these things. My mom used to always just tell me that people are going to call names because they want you to stop scoring goals and stop beating their team, and they’ll do anything to try to throw me off my game, basically. She always told me, ‘If you want to get back at them, just score more goals. Just be successful.’ I always remembered that.
I think that the great experience far outweighs any of the negatives in the past. But I think the one thing that bothers me the most about that is even having a thought in my mind — because I’m so proud of my Japanese and my Ukrainian heritage — for one minute, wanting to maybe look like everybody else that played. You know, to stop the name-calling. Because I would never, ever want to change who I am and where I came from. I’m so proud of my mom, my grandmother; I’m proud of my dad and his family and everything that they’ve been through. And I know that they have been through a lot. Whether it’s the racism, the internment camps, starting with nothing and working so hard to be so successful, that honestly, having the name Sunohara on my back is, to me, I’m so proud of it.
What was it like to travel to Japan for the first women’s Olympic hockey tournament back in 1998?
When I went to Japan, I met a lot of relatives I had no idea we had. It was really great. But they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese.… They brought me out [to Ueda, where Sunohara’s grandparents grew up, about an hour’s drive north of host city Nagano] in a car with a translator and we had a sit-down meal with relatives and they all brought presents and pictures…. There were a couple of women that really looked like my grandmother. It was amazing. It was a great experience for me.
Were you aware as you were playing — whether at the worlds or Olympics, or just playing hockey in general — of the impact you could have, as an example to aspiring women’s hockey players and Asian-Canadian athletes?
I don’t think that I’d ever thought about the impact at all. I think that when you’re playing, you’re just so in the moment and so focused on your goals.
When I was young, I dreamed of playing in the NHL, because that was it, that was the only thing that was there. And so as I got older and these opportunities came up — whether it’s getting a scholarship, going to play in the U.S. [at Northeastern], playing for Team Canada or in a world championships, and then they made women’s hockey an Olympic sport — that you don’t realize what it’s doing. You don’t realize how, in the future, it’s going to help girls, women, people of colour, anything, to play or want to get involved because it’s going to be a dream. Because we never really had that.
After your playing days were over, did coaching then become the next dream?
I never thought I would be a coach because I never thought I could sit and watch and not jump on the ice and play. But I think that’s probably how everybody feels when they’re playing. They never can foresee how they’re going to feel when they get older.
When I found out I was pregnant with my twins [in 2009], I started to coach with the Brampton Thunder in the CWHL. I just started helping out running practices and things like that … I enjoyed that, and it kept me involved in the game.
And then [in 2011] U. of T. was moving to a full-time coach and their coach at the time had a full-time position elsewhere and so it was just great timing that I got this position. I took a lot from the coaches that have coached me, I learned a lot from the players that I played with, the coaches that I had, and just kind of tried to put it all together to develop what I thought I wanted as a coaching style and coaching philosophy. And I’ve just continued to learn so much along the way. I just love it. I love working with our student-athletes. I love being on the ice. And now I coach my 13-year-old boys. I just try to learn from everybody and to share my experiences to try to help them as well.
When you look at the U. of T. women’s hockey roster, what does it mean to be able to coach such a diverse group?
We do have quite a diverse team, probably the most diverse in the whole league…. Within our team, I think it’s more the conversation of, how can we help? How can we be better? How can we help younger kids? How can we maybe use our experiences to help other student athletes? We talk about these things and not often enough, I think.
I’m on a BIPOC coach mentoring group that was established by the Black Canadian Coaches Association. We have a lot of passionate coaches and mentees. It’s the first year, so it’s opened up a lot of conversation, but I hope that it’s something that continues because there’re a few of our players on our team that are mentees and maybe they will be BIPOC coaches one day. But within our team … I do think even having younger kids come to our games and meet our players, they see what is possible for them … I think it’s more by what we do day-to-day as opposed to holding seminars or things like that, but it’s something that we’ve spoken about, that we could possibly do and share our experiences with everybody.