As the 2017 edition of Team Canada that competed at the ISBHF Worlds featured many new faces, representing the next generation of star talent, such a prodigy was evident between the pipes. Having established herself as one of the finest goaltenders in Prairie Canada, Edmonton’s Kristen Sugiyama elevated her game to a global level, accentuating her distinguished career with the privilege of wearing the Maple Leaf.
With an ice hockey background that saw Sugiyama compete at the university level with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, her initial foray to the court took place in 2007. Having initially taken it up as an off-season sport, it would prove to be the start of an exceptional journey that resulted in a gradual rise towards world class status.
Calling the Edmonton Ducks her club team, Sugiyama balanced her goaltending duties while also pulling double duty in a unique coaching capacity. For three seasons, Sugiyama served on Deanna Iwanicka’s coaching staff with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) Ooks. Having also played for the team prior to her ball hockey journey, the coaching opportunity brought her Ooks career full circle. With fellow assistant coach Laura Stosky, both held the unique distinction of being program alums on the staff, both experiencing in the jubilation of an ACAC championship.
As the Ducks have become a second family, the Ducks encompass what makes the game so enjoyable for Sugiyama. Although the Ducks have never competed at the CBHA Nationals, there was a strong sense of pride in team circles knowing that the Edmonton Red Light recruited Sugiyama to guard the crease at the 2016 edition of the Nationals.
Competing in the gold medal game against the Calgary Elite, adding a new dimension to the Battle of Alberta, while adding to the province’s growing legacy in elite female ball hockey, the tournament also served as a turning point for Sugiyama. With scouts from the Canadian Ball Hockey Association on-hand to evaluate talent, Sugiyama certainly made an impression. Statistically, she led all goaltenders in the elimination round in minutes played, while tying for first in goals against average with Cassidy Hendricks of the BC Selects and the legendary Jennifer Price, a former teammate of Cammi Granato with the BC Breakers of the WWHL, and a current ball hockey competitor with the BC Hawks.
Of note, Sugiyama was part of an impressive group of Alberta talent at the CBHA Nationals that presented a great group of riches for the eventual Team Canada. With Alberta boasting more players on the national team than any other province, Sugiyama was among a wealth of talent prepared for the next challenge in the evolution of their careers. As a side note, members of the Calgary Elite, including Emily Berzins, Mandi Duhamel, Michelle Marsz, Rhianna Kurio (who also won the Clarkson Cup in the same year) would go from gold medal game rivals to teammates while wearing Canada’s colors in Pardubice.
“My Ducks ball hockey team is a group of close longtime friends who go out to have a great time and get some exercise. Going to the CBHA Nationals with Edmonton Red Light gave me a chance to play at a higher level and challenge myself. Since I no longer play competitive ice hockey, it’s that competitiveness I miss: that is the best part!”
Also part of the Alberta-based talent that donned the Canadian jersey in 2017 included one of Sugiyama’s teammates. Having enjoyed the opportunity to call Edmonton Thunder ice hockey alum Tara Swanson a fellow member of the Ducks, their careers have run parallel on the court. Fittingly, the two would both earn the call to Canada’s contingent, adding relevance to the Ducks provincial impact, as their international debuts represent a fascinating continuity in their careers.
Equally matched by a sense of euphoria, the feeling of attainment that emanated from the chance to don Canada’s jersey was one that heralded Sugiyama’s arrival among the game’s elites. In discussing the privilege of sharing the national team experience with Swanson, it added a sense of consistency,
“When I found out I was chosen, at first it was almost a shock. I did not really think something like this was possible! Once the initial surprise and excitement settled, it was pretty emotional to think about playing for my country. When I found out Tara had also been chosen, I was ecstatic. We have been teammates since 2009 so to have a close friend take the journey with me was icing on the cake.”
Sharing goaltending duties with the legendary Nathalie Girouard, whose ball hockey resume consists of multiple CBHA national titles and ISBHF Masters Gold, among other achievements, Sugiyama found an ideal mentor and positive influence. In four games played, Sugiyama logged 180 minutes, while allowing only two goals.
Statistically, Sugiyama was the goaltending champion at the ISBHF Worlds, recording a miniscule 0.50 goals against average. Such numeric dominance was complemented by a stellar .967 save percentage and a pair of shutouts (only Katerina Zechovska of the Czech Republic recorded more shutouts), it was a tremendous effort that gained Sugiyama significant acclaim. Taking into account that such a milestone was attained during her first international tournament, it speaks volumes to her potential as a cornerstone for the program’s future.
Making her ISBHF debut versus Team Great Britain on June 4, 2017, there was the added milestone of logging a shutout in said debut. Facing only six shots, the Canadian contingent blanked Great Britain by an 11-0 mark, as Rachel Jackson and Megan Quigley faced a combined 54 shots in a valiant effort.
Two days later, Sugiyama gained her second straight tournament win, defeating Team Italia by a 4-1 tally. In allowing only one goal, there was a slight tinge of irony as said goal was scored by a Canadian-born player. Having played with Team Canada’s gold medal winning team at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds, Alicia Furletti-Blomberg, who grew up in Canada’s capital region, joined her sister as “Heritage Players” for the 2017 edition of Team Italia.
Sugiyama’s hot streak in Pardubice would continue as she recorded her third straight tournament win. Guarding Canada’s crease against the host country Czech Republic, it was a significant test that would determine whether Sugiyama was capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder among the elites of the game. Nullifying three power plays, while facing 30 shots, displayed tremendous poise, excelling under such high pressure, simultaneously proving to be a crucial factor in an essential win.
Worth noting, Marsz, who opposed Sugiyama in the gold medal game of the 2016 CBHA Nationals, opened the scoring for Canada with the first goal of her ISBHF career. Gaining the assist on this milestone goal was Giuliana Pallotta, who was also making her international debut for Canada’s contingent. Emerging victorious in a 2-1 final, it proved to be the only loss for the Czech Republic on home soil.
“I am really proud about how I performed in Pardubice. I was able to settle in a bit during the first couple games against Great Britain and Italy. Then, I had the Czech game, which I felt was the biggest challenge of the tournament. Playing in front of that large home crowd was something I will never forget.
I have not played much competitive hockey in the past several years so I worked really hard to prepare by playing some men’s games and some training sessions with my goalie coach prior to the tournament.”
In the aftermath of a peerless performance against the Czech Republic, an even greater victory would follow. Gaining the start for Canada in the bronze medal game against Slovakia, it was a high stakes game for both traditional ball hockey powers. The losing team would endure the visceral reality of missing a podium finish for the first time in program history. For a Canadian team coming off a heartbreaking loss to the United States, the first in tournament history, she would be counted upon to be a tremendous source of confidence in a high stakes match for bronze.
Opposing renowned goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova, who competed in women’s ice hockey at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, and broke numerous program records at Minnesota’s Bemidji State, Sugiyama played the game of her life. Rising to the occasion with her second shutout of the tournament, Sugiyama refused to be intimidated, surviving a potential baptism of fire to emerge as a significant asset for the jubilant Canadians in a 5-0 shutout triumph.
Considering that Sugiyama’s time in Pardubice began with a shutout, it was only fitting that it would culminate with another. Sporting an undefeated record, while helping Canada extend its streak of podium finishes, her competitive edge certainly remained sharp. Definitely Canada’s feel-good story in Pardubice, the bronze recognized an amalgam of national pride and personal achievement, providing Sugiyama with a cherished experience that shall enhance her hockey legacy into one of prominence,
“Going into the bronze medal game we knew we had tough competition coming off a regulation loss to Slovakia. The last buzzer and knowing we captured bronze was such a rush! It was a great day to be Canadian and I was so fortunate to play alongside such outstanding athletes from across Canada…it was a true honor. Nothing beats standing on the blue line listening to O Canada with your team!”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Daniel Soucek