Olympian Vicky Sunohara is the first full-time head coach of the Varsity Blues women's hockey team. (Pursuit photo)

Olympian Sunohara talks hockey and coaching

Gold medallist is U of T's first full-time women's hockey coach

Vicky Sunohara (PHE 1T0) strapped on her first skates at two years old and hit the ice flying. During her competitive career, the three-time Olympic medalist was known as one of the best female ice hockey players the world over, often described as “the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey.” Equally skilled at mentoring her teammates, Sunohara became a natural on the coaching bench, too. This year she returned to the University of Toronto as the first-ever full-time coach of the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team. Just days into the job, Sunohara sat down with Pursuit editor Althea Blackburn-Evans to talk about her hockey highlights and her hopes for the Blues.

You had tremendous international success as a player; did you achieve everything you set out to achieve?

I really didn’t have any major goals as a player; I just loved playing. I guess I was meant to be on the rink – a hockey player, a coach now – because I love it so much.

Was Olympic gold the highlight of your career, or were the smaller victories the sweetest?

It was pretty fulfilling just to make the team in 1998 and get to the Olympics. But [taking gold at] Salt Lake was probably the highlight because so much was against us. We lost eight straight exhibition games to the U.S. and then we went to Salt Lake to play them. They were defending Olympic gold medalists, so it was pretty special.

Women’s hockey has grown exponentially during your time as a player and a coach; is there more
growing to do?

It’s actually unbelievable the growth that’s happened. The CIS (Canadian Intrauniversity Sport) is improving so much. To have [a program with] a full-time head coach was pretty unheard of not that long ago. In so many aspects it’s really growing, but in the professional league there’s a little bit of room to grow. So many people are trying to make that happen – and I think that will happen in the international game as well. There are only two or three powerhouses in women’s hockey so we need to get it more competitive throughout the world.

You have been described as a natural leader; was the transition to coaching an obvious progression?

I think so. Cassie Campbell was my captain for many years, and we both agreed that every player on the team is just as important as the other. Whether you’re in the first line or the fourth line, whether you’re the back-up goaltender, everybody plays an important role. And I think as a coach you need to be able to motivate everybody to be successful. I’m sure I’ll make my share of mistakes; I know there’s always going to be bumps in the road – I had that as a player and I’ll have that as a coach. But I’ll keep working hard and good things will happen.

You recently got your physical education degree from the Faculty of Physical Education and Health; what was that like, to be juggling life and work and school?

I was petrified to come back to school after taking so much time off, and it was tough – but it was a good thing for me. Now, as a coach, I understand what it’s like to play at the highest level and go to school and work and juggle all that. It may give me an edge in terms of making sure I give my team enough time to get their work done and to rest.

What is your vision for the Varsity Blues?

My vision is to do my best to give the players everything they need to be successful. I’ve been part of a winning tradition in every team I’ve played with and I want to bring that here. But what’s important for me right now is to bring out the best in everybody and to put a gold-medal team on the ice – whether we win or lose I want to do the best we can do.

How does it feel to be back at U of T?
This job gives me another thing to wake up every day and smile about. Every day I think, ‘Wow, I’m coaching at the University of Toronto!’ It’s a dream job for me.

This article first appeared in Pursuit.

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