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Celebrating 20 Years of Nagano: Jayna Hefford

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With a sensational athletic legacy that has firmly entrenched Jayna Hefford into an icon of Canadian sporting culture, such an amazing journey found its roots during a formative time in the game’s modern resurgence. Competing in women’s ice hockey at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, it was an event that propelled her into the role of pioneer, beginning the transformation towards status as a living legend. 

Part of a historic roster that would compete in the first women’s ice hockey tournament at the Olympic Winter Games, it would prove to be the first of five consecutive appearances for Hefford. Sharing in this accomplishment were Hayley Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette, becoming the first women in the history of Winter Games ice hockey to do so. Complemented by the fact that this titanic trio also captured four consecutive gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014), another historic first, it placed them into the pantheon of the game’s immortals.

Appearing in 267 career games for the national team, Hefford’s 291 points ranks second all-time in program history, trailing only Wickenheiser. As a side note, Hefford is one of only three women with more than a 100 goals, part of a distinguished group that included the aforementioned Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette, a member of the 2017 Hockey Hall of Fame Class, and a 2018 Recipient of the Order of Hockey in Canada.

While Nagano was a watershed moment for women’s hockey, placing wondrous women such as Hefford into the sporting conversation, the anticipation leading up to this milestone was almost a year in the making. Holding a very strong emotional component, the 1997 IIHF Women’s Worlds in Kitchener, Ontario, served as prologue, the last major event before Nagano.

Although there would be a series of exhibition matches between Canada and the US during the Centralization that took place in the autumn of 1997, along with the 3 Nations Cup, Kitchener was where the roots for the build-up towards Nagano took shape. For members of Canada’s team, the chance to compete on home ice brought with it profound meaning.

Leading up to the event, the team had a white patch with the image of a rose emblazoned, a fitting tribute to the late Rose Cherry, one of the earliest supporters of the game. For some players on the team, like Hefford, the impact of Kitchener was heightened because it represented their debut for the national team.

Considering that Hefford was a resident of Ontario, raised in the hockey hotbed of Kingston, it was a cherished opportunity to add to an already growing list of hockey achievements. Competing with Team Ontario at the 1995 Canada Winter, Hefford was also an Ontario University Athletics All-Star, making her mark with the University of Toronto Lady Blues.

Making her debut on March 31, 1997, as Canada thumped Switzerland in a 6-0 blanking, Hefford would enjoy the milestone of her first goal one day later. Hosting Russia, as more than 5,500 fans packed the stands, Hefford scored the first goal of the game, as Canada emerged victorious in a 9-1 final. Surprisingly, each of Canada’s goals was recorded by a different player as the scoresheet included notable names such as Goyette, St. Louis, Sunohara, Schuler, Wickenheiser, Luce Letendre, Karen Nystrom and Stacy Wilson, who would serve as Canada’s captain in Nagano. 

Such a milestone was a golden one for the jubilant Hefford, accumulating a lifetime of memories in the process. With the United States pushing Canada to overtime, such a poignant tournament reached its apex as Nancy Drolet scored the game-winning tally, giving her a hat trick on the day. With a group of proud fans roaring in decibel-shattering approval, it was an event that stimulated interest in the game, demonstrating the potential of the women of hockey to become heroes.

“Wearing the TC jersey for the first time in Kitchener as an absolute dream come true.  Being able to compete in my first WC in Canada – with a win in OT, was incredible.  Definitely one of my most proud moments.  Also, being able to play alongside so many players I looked up to and watched play on television was very special.  There was definitely some heightened anticipation with the Olympics approaching.  There was a lot of excitement and anxiousness around how the first centralization season would play out.”

Worth noting, Kitchener would also signify a cultural crossover for women’s ice hockey in Canada. With a film crew from the National Film Board of Canada producing “The Game of Her Life”, the ground breaking documentary altered the status quo. Followed by players appearing on magazine covers, cereal boxes and hockey cards, the game began to take an unprecedented relevance, awakening Canada’s sporting community to a new reality.

Such relevance took on full realization with the opening faceoff at Nagano on February 8, 1998. Beginning for the Canadian contingent with a 13-0 blanking of host country Japan at Aqua Wing, 11 different Canadians logged at least one point in the triumph, as this gathering of new-look hockey heroines evinced a new era. Definitely a concrete memory for Hefford, it was populating the mythology for a fascinating career to unfold.

“Skating onto Olympic ice for the first time was also the realization of a dream.  You realize that you are actually an Olympian—an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.  It was also the beginning of the ‘fun’ part after such a long and intense lead-up to the games.”

Aqua Wing would also be the setting for Hefford’s first point in Winter Games play as a Valentine’s Day match-up against the United States represented the renewal of the most intense rivalry in women’s hockey. In a third period that saw both teams combine for nine goals, one of the most explosive displays of offense in Winter Games women’s hockey history, Hefford would record Canada’s third goal of the game. Scoring at the 5:28 mark, as Canada capitalized on another power play opportunity, the assist was credited to Lori Dupuis.

While the narrative in Hefford’s hockey journey would be fused to Wickenheiser and Ouellette, the details reveal another group of accomplished competitors were part of the path. With a legacy further emphasized by the achievement of Vancouver 2010, as Hefford and Wickenheiser became part of sporting Canadiana alongside Becky Kellar and Jennifer Botterill as the only Canadians to participate in the first four women’s hockey tournaments of the Winter Games, a pair of teammates in Nagano would become just as essential.

Gracing the ice as teammates in both Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake 2002, where Canada would capture its first-ever women’s ice hockey gold as Hefford logged the gold-medal clinching goal, Dupuis and Vicky Sunohara would become lifelong friends with Hefford. Sandwiched in between those two events were not only three IIHF Women’s World Championships, but the chance to don the jersey of the iconic Brampton Thunder in the newly launched NWHL.

From 1998 to 2009, this amazing assembly of talent that was Hefford, Dupuis and Sunohara anchored the Thunder into one of Canadian professional hockey’s most venerated teams. Appearances at the Esso Women’s Nationals were also common, while the transition into the CWHL would present one final milestone. During the inaugural season of CWHL hockey of 2007-08, Brampton would capture the league championship, adding a footnote to such a sensational run. After Sunohara retired in 2009, Hefford and Dupuis would remain the backbone of the Thunder until the 2012-13 season.

Perhaps more impressive was the list of luminaries that would play alongside such a titanic trio, including the world’s finest talent. In the aftermath of Nagano, Sue Merz from the rival US and goaltender Sami Jo Small, a member of Canada’s team at Salt Lake 2002 were part of the Thunder’s inaugural roster in NWHL play. When the club became part of the CWHL, blueliner Allyson Fox and forward Kathleen Kauth were among the league’s co-founders, while US national team member Molly Engstrom scored the championship clinching goal that season. 

By the spring of 2013, when Dupuis announced her retirement, the Thunder featured the likes of current national team members such as Gillian Apps, Vicki Bendus, Bailey Bram and Cherie Piper. Not to be forgotten were Laura McIntosh, the all-time scoring leader in Ohio State history, NCAA Frozen Four champion Tara Gray (who played at Minnesota-Duluth for Shannon Miller, the head coach for Canada at Nagano), along with Swiss goaltending sensation Florence Schelling.

Throughout this shared journey, there was never a shortage of support among them. When Jayna Hefford played in her 200th career game for Canada, which took place in Ottawa on January 1, 2010, they were both on-hand at centre ice for the pre-game ceremony. Coincidentally, Engstrom participated in that contest as a member of Team USA, one which saw Hefford serendipitously score the game-winning goal.

Worth noting, Dupuis, Hefford and Sunohara even transitioned together into coaching. With Sunohara serving as head coach of the University of Toronto Lady Blues women’s ice hockey program (which saw all three compete for the program in the 1990s), both served on her staff. Dupuis, who also holds roots in Eastern Ontario, having grown up in Cornwall, is also an entrepreneur with Hefford, as both co-founded a hockey academy. In addition, Dupuis is a staple at Hefford’s Links 4 Life charity golf tournament, a key event on Kingston’s summer sports calendar.

“Lori and Vicky are two of my best friends still. We have a lot of fun together and approach the game in similar ways.  We loved to have fun at the rink, but are also very competitive and loved pushing each other to get better.  We also played on a line together for the last two games in Nagano. I think our playing styles complimented each other as we all had different strengths.”

Running parallel to the introduction of top-tier female hockey talent in Nagano was the arrival of National Hockey League competitors in the Winter Games. Mirroring the presence of National Basketball Association stars that first competed at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, Nagano took on tremendous luster, as the intensity of the men’s hockey tournament was in the same stratosphere as the Stanley Cup.

While the gold medal in women’s hockey is sometimes referred to informally as their Stanley Cup, there was no question that Nagano was essential in showcasing the potential of women as more than just global superstars, but integral to the game’s future. With the chance to be on equal footing with their male counterparts, such an appropriate setting helped bring greater legitimacy to the game. Prior to Nagano, Stacy Wilson would be photographed with Eric Lindros for an article on hockey in MacLean’s magazine while Cassie Campbell appeared with Brendan Shanahan on boxes of Maple Frosted Wheaties.

There was also the opportunity to take on the role of fan. Players such as Wickenheiser and Geraldine Heaney being interviewed by Ron MacLean and Don Cherry in between the action of the men’s gold medal game between Czech Republic and Russia. Having grown up in awe of Wayne Gretzky’s abilities, the opportunity for Hefford to meet the Great One, who was undoubtedly one of the most popular athletes in Nagano, represented a high point.

While Gretzky’s legend was being formed at a young age, scoring 378 goals in one season of minor hockey, Hefford emulated his mark, registering over 850 goals and 1300 career points with the Kingston Kodiaks minor program. The parallels do not end there, as Hefford is the Thunder’s all-time scoring leader and record holder for most points in a single season, akin to Gretzky with the Oilers. In addition, she would also retire as the all-time scoring leader in the CWHL. Considering that subsequent Winter Games allowed future generations of hockey playing girls to have a role model in Hefford, the way boys in the 1980s admired the Great One, such a legacy is one where the sense of team and belonging are just as relevant as the achievements.    

“I did have a chance to meet Wayne Gretzky in both Nagano and Salt Lake City.  That was special, as I was a big fan growing up.  All of the men’s players have always been very supportive of the women’s program.  They are proud hockey players who love the game, so there are a lot of similarities.  When you compete at the Olympics, you are part of a bigger team than just the hockey team and they have always bought into that concept.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Images featuring game action in Nagano obtained from: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/olympians/001064-119.01-e.php?&photo_id_nbr=9597&&PHPSESSID=jj3u1v4ecuo4nvl3ss0oj5h0q7

http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/olympians/001064-119.01-e.php?&photo_id_nbr=10414&&PHPSESSID=dlbghk3a8459b5l4vpsjt2nhv0

Hockey card images obtained from Check Out My Cards: https://www.comc.com/

Others: Getty Images

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