Silver Lining: An oral history of Canada's Olympic debut in women's hockey

Team Canada’s silver medal performance in Nagano was both a blessing and a curse. (B Bennett/Getty Images)
Team Canada’s silver medal performance in Nagano was both a blessing and a curse. (B Bennett/Getty Images)

While the sport got the exposure in 1998 it rightly deserved, much of Canada was hearing the names Lori Dupuis, Vicky Sunohara and Jayna Hefford for the first time. Four players from that team and builder Fran Rider have the Order of Hockey in Canada, and two are in the Hockey Hall of Fame with more certain to follow. Many more were decorated veterans of a sport that was playing in front of the entire world for the first time. Members and staff recall here the value tournaments had in the growth of the sport, how women’s hockey strives for respect and exposure in the media, reaching the highest peak yet in one of sport’s great living rivalries, and how the silver lining of their silver medals was an unmatched streak of gold.

Beginnings in women’s hockey

Fran Rider (IIHF Hall of Fame’s first female builder): When I started playing, you really didn’t know that girls teams existed. I first found a women’s team when the Toronto Telegram wrote a story about a women’s tournament coming to Brampton in 1967. I took on various roles with teams and leagues, including the Brampton tournament which I was director of for 10 years. In doing that, I developed a real interest in growing the women’s game beyond the borders of Canada and North America.

The players were good role models, and strong, powerful people who I thought deserved an opportunity to showcase their skills at the highest level. It could show girls and adult women that they didn’t just have to watch the game, they could also play the game.

Lesley Reddon, goaltender: I grew up watching the NHL, and when people would ask what I wanted to be, I’d say “hockey player” even though I knew I wasn’t going to the NHL. After a 1982 women’s tournament, an article in the Canadian Hockey Association magazine said they hoped to have women’s hockey in the Olympics by the year 2000. At age 12, I’d set the goal of playing as long as I could at the highest level.

Vicky Sunohara, forward: There was an unofficial world championships in 1987 and I was a flag bearer in the opening ceremony. I was 16 years old and all I wanted to do was play in that tournament. When it became a reality in 1990, it was a dream come true.

Lori Dupuis, forward: The Pacific Rim tournament in ’95 was a close second to walking into the opening ceremonies in Nagano. I sat in the dressing room between Hayley Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette. Though there wasn’t media attention, it was still very exciting knowing that we’d reached the pinnacle of our game. It wasn’t something I dreamed about as a kid, putting on the Canadian jersey; being from a small town I didn’t know what was out there or what I was capable of.

Rider: Tournaments played a key role in growing women’s hockey. [Organizers met at every Ontario tournament] to talk about how the game could be made better, how to get players involved, and how to promote the sport. The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) was formed in 1975. In 1982, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) first recognized women’s hockey. In 1985, we had our first international division in the Brampton tournament and by then we were already talking to [international sports officials] about establishing the sport in the Olympics.

Cassie Campbell, defence: I tried out for the ’90 world championships team and the ’92 team, and didn’t even make it out of Ontario. That was my first exposure to the notion that there were this many women who could play, women I’d never heard of before. It was around ’92 that it was announced the sport would be in the Olympics so that became my priority. I went to the University of Guelph and Sue Scherer, who was the captain of that first world championships team, was my coach. She told me she would make sure I made the national team. But even in ’94 I was a bit of a surprise to make it.

Shannon Miller, head coach: Men’s minor hockey was really big in Calgary [in the 1980s] and so was oil. There was just no girls hockey. It was so obvious to me it was time for a girls league. I would say to Hockey Alberta, ‘It says Calgary Minor Hockey, not Calgary Boys Minor Hockey.’ Once they got on board, they embraced us and became very proud of our girls teams. After I butted heads with Hockey Alberta, they recommended me for a job with the national team. In the summer of ’94, I was named the head coach of Team Canada.

Rider: A contract was signed for the sport to enter the Games [earlier] in 1994 but the option was not picked up. The number we heard flying around was that [our inclusion] would cost an additional million dollars. As exciting as it was to get into [the ’98 Olympics], it was heartbreaking for the players who were getting older, like Angela James, who had helped get us where we were but who wouldn’t take those first steps on the ice because of that four-year wait for ’98.

Olympic centralization

Team Canada faces off against China in Nagano. (Mike Hewit /Allsport)
Team Canada faces off against China in Nagano. (Mike Hewit /Allsport)

Team Canada centralized in Calgary in the Fall of ’97 to prepare for the Games in February of ’98. Players from all over Canada moved to Alberta for several months, some leaving behind school, full- and part-time work, and family. But the team was not yet chosen. Roster cuts loomed.

Miller: We were trying not to fall behind [the U.S.] who had hired coach Ben Smith who flew around the country for two years preparing his team. He was full-time while my staff and I were not, though we still felt we had to put in that full-time effort. [Hockey Canada] never talked to me about the next year, ever. I’d read in the newspaper the day of the [’97 Worlds] gold-medal game that my position with the Olympic team [was contingent upon our victory]. No one had ever had that conversation with me, and that didn’t feel good after volunteering since 1991.

Campbell: I moved out of my Toronto apartment with all my stuff like I was going to university and it was no big deal, but for someone like Stacy Wilson, some players had mortgages and jobs they left behind. Therese Brisson was told by the University of New Brunswick that she would be fired if she left. She left anyway. Hockey Canada paid us a salary but I don’t think they anticipated the expenses we had. They’ve since learned their lesson and upped the ante but that year was a struggle financially for us.

Miller: I was not happy with the time commitment of our strength and conditioning coach. When I challenged him on it, he said, “You know, with the money I’m getting from Hockey Canada, I work with 10 teams and you guys are [priority] No. 10.”

Sunohara: My company was very supportive and gave me a leave of absence. They still paid me during the time I was away. I know other people were in different situations. But nobody would have given it a second thought even if they couldn’t make ends meet.

Jayna Hefford, forward: I was 20 years old and a student taking a year off to go train to be an athlete. Even though we had a wide age range, we all were kind of rookies. We had to adjust to a new workload, the travel, the expectations leading up to the Olympics. But as much as the Olympics are bigger than the world championships, the game itself is not. Our job was to perform the way we were always expected to and win the gold medal.

Final roster cuts

Miller: The day you have to make cuts, even if you’re 100 percent sure of your decisions, is gut-wrenching, especially if you’re a compassionate coach. I doubt the players got much sleep the night before. I certainly didn’t. Not because I wasn’t confident in my decisions, it was just that I knew I was going to break hearts and crush dreams.

Dupuis: It’s a highly, highly stressful time. They stagger the one-on-one meetings with team staff so that you’re not running into teammates on the way in or out. You try to be there for those who’ve been cut as much as you can but it’s funny, when you’re young, you sometimes feel so selfish. I think the hardest thing is not winning gold or silver but just making an Olympic team.

Campbell: Even if you made the team, you weren’t happy. There’s always a drop-off period [at training camps after roster cuts] that coaches even prepare for. There’s this sadness and happiness happening at the same time, and that’s sort of an impossible emotion. I remember when Luce Letendre got cut it was devastating. She was one of my great friends and we had so much fun together and then boom, she’s gone. I personally dedicated my next month of camp to her.

Miller: When I was a police officer, I used to deliver messages where I would go into a family’s living room and have to say, ‘I’m sorry to tell you this but your son was killed in a car accident tonight.’ The night before [roster cuts], to clear my head, I relived some of those past conversations to keep a perspective on what I had to do the next day while remaining sensitive and compassionate.

Campbell: And then Angela James gets cut, well, she was my hero. We were all shocked and thought she should have been there. She was suffering from [Grave’s disease] and lost a lot of weight, so she wasn’t playing like Angela James but she deserved to be there and play fourth-line.

Miller: We had special conversations about Angela among the staff. You’re supposed to be neutral and not cheer for players. But when you’ve coached and won with somebody in the past, it’s hard not to pull for them. I had private meetings with players [prior to roster cuts] asking them if they would accept a role on the fourth line and some said ‘absolutely’ and others said ‘absolutely not.’ I wanted to give everyone the best opportunity to represent their country, especially if you’d done it before, and you’ll have to trust me on that. Eight coaches evaluated and selected the team, not three and not one.

Dupuis: It’s not that we forgot about players like Angela but we had to get on track together as a team pretty quickly.

Miller: The day the team was announced at Olympic Park in Calgary, I was so full of pride. In that moment, there wasn’t a weight of responsibility, just elation. That was my last eyes-open, enjoy-the-sunshine moment. And that was one of my mistakes.

‘The Game of Her Life’ and media exposure

One of the few documents of the 1998 Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team is the National Film Board’s “The Game of Her Life” (1997). The documentary film crew followed the team for almost two years prior to the Olympics, providing a new level of exposure to the sport for many Canadians. Though not all the players were satisfied with how the players were represented on film.

Campbell: It was good to showcase the game in a way that had never been done but for the amount of time that they followed us, I don’t think they captured who we were and what we were about. They pigeon-holed some of us, including myself. The film lacked our training and competitiveness and seemed to be more about the dramatics. But we’d never had that kind of attention before. We were dealing with people who didn’t know our sport very well and we were like, ‘God! We’ve been doing this for a while!’

Miller: I remember feeling very grateful that they cared enough to [film] it. There were two or three women [the film’s director and producer were women, as well as some crew] that were very proud of us. I think they were very disappointed with some of the things they saw behind the scenes in terms of how we were treated, so I actually felt they were on our side and wanted to portray us well.

Campbell: I can only speak for myself but I took one modelling class when I was 16 years old and that became a big part of the film. I didn’t appreciate the way in which I was portrayed. I was never about the way I looked; I barely brushed my hair before a game. Everything they seemed to film about me had to do with my sponsors and [my appearance]. I was such a team player and yet I could feel the attention going to a small amount of us like myself and [goaltender] Manon Rheaume. Nike came on board but only sponsored five or six of us.

Sunohara: I completely understand how Cass feels. She gives one hundred percent in everything she does and I think that this probably took away from how hard she works as a player. For myself, I was working full-time then and that part of my [documentary] segment was true, and I think that described a lot of people on the team.

Campbell: There was no one really to talk to about [media exposure] because I was the only one getting that much. I had to sign 700 or so jerseys for Campbell Soup and I made sure to keep as many of those kind of things private. So I sat alone in a storage room signing jerseys at Hockey Canada, trying to keep [my exposure] out of people’s faces.

Sunohara: There was a film crew shooting a documentary on me (Sunohara’s late father’s family lived 50 miles from Nagano). When we were driving to the athletes’ village, there was a van driving beside us with a guy out the rooftop with a camera filming me. They followed me everywhere.

Campbell: I may have felt an insecurity more than some teammates. It was a real learning experience for me and I know it affected my play that year. [After ’98] I knew what I had to concentrate on for those next four years. I became a better leader and a better person and a better player. It was the first year when we had to deal with the outside world not meaning to pull us apart but trying to. We were a generation of hockey players who didn’t get a lot back from sport and played for free.

Preliminary round-robin game vs. United States

Canada faces off against the U.S. in preliminary action. (B Bennett/Getty Images)
Canada faces off against the U.S. in preliminary action. (B Bennett/Getty Images)

Finally, the U.S. and Canada met in a round-robin Olympic game in Nagano. It was the 14th time the teams had met in the last year, with Canada leading the series 7-6. Physicality reigned, players sustained injuries, and Canada’s starting goalie played her way out of the gold medal final. Team Canada blew a 4-1 lead and lost 7-4 while alleged personal comments were made in the handshake line toward Danielle Goyette, whose father passed away just prior to the Olympics. The gold-medal game brought finality but the round-robin game brought dramatics.

Miller: [U.S. head coach] Ben Smith and I were pulled aside by someone with the Olympic committee who said, ‘You’re meeting in the gold-medal game, we know that, the game will be televised, and it’s an opportunity to showcase women’s hockey.’ He asked us to play a sportsmanlike game and then battle for gold in the final. But they physically came after us and I was disappointed in Ben.

Hefford: Those round-robin games are more important for confidence than most people give them credit for.

Reddon: Partway through the third we were still up and the wheels fell off in the last 12 minutes. I think most of their goals were either second or third shots while another was someone alone at the edge of the crease who went five-hole before I had a chance to move. The last goal went in the empty net and I was on the bench watching as our defender was playing a two-on-one as if there was a goalie behind her. We yelled, ‘Go after her, there’s no goalie!’

Campbell: It was awful. Self-destruction. It killed us. They’d never really beat us at a big tournament before. They improved so much that previous year, in 1997, and we didn’t. We made the mistake of playing the U.S. 13 times in the year before the Olympics and it gave them confidence with us being the favourites.

Sunohara: I never thought we had the game in the bag; we had lost to the U.S. before. They scored a couple of goals and we changed the way we were playing and went on the defensive. We were playing to lose. I thought we played scared.

Campbell: Our No. 1 goalie Lesley Reddon was in net so there was no way she was going to play the U.S. again in the final. Manon [Rheaume] jumped at the opportunity, and she was great, but Lesley was probably our better goalie.

Hefford: I didn’t hear [the alleged personal comment made toward Goyette] but I certainly saw the state Danielle was in after the game. There’s a lot of respect between the two programs but it’s quite heated. Prior to that, there was a lot of stuff that happened throughout the [pre-Olympic] tours.

Miller: In the handshake line, if any team would have gone to the gutter it might have been us after what had just happened. One of their players did say something to Danielle who immediately came over to talk to me, and I then spoke to their captain Cammi Granato. I told her what Danielle told me and said I didn’t think there was a place for that in our game. She agreed and she addressed it but they came back to say it didn’t happen. It’s all right there on video.

Campbell: I’d never seen Danielle so mad in my life. Again, I wish it hadn’t gone public because it was yet another thing for us to deal with. That pile just became bigger and bigger.

Gold-medal game

As expected, the two nations met in the final with the U.S. skating to a 3-1 victory. It was a stunning loss for Team Canada but a deserved win for an improved American program. Ultimately, two women’s hockey teams received Olympic medals that day, helping to open new doors for women and girls in sport. Team Canada has since won four straight Olympics with many returning players from the ’98 squad. But the Team Canada of 2018 will be the first without a single player from Nagano.

Dupuis: We were all over them in the first two periods and I think we got overconfident.

Miller: I remember the goals and the almost-goals. The first goal they scored, Manon played it great. They just threw it on net, [Canadian defender] Fiona Smith had her stick on-puck where it should be, the puck goes off Fiona’s stick, Manon covers the bottom of the net but it goes in over her shoulder. That was a real downer to start like that after the last game [against the U.S.].

On the second goal, one of our penalty killers went out of rotation, Manon played it well again, and there was nothing she could have done to stop it. Then Stacy Wilson, who didn’t know if she could play [due to a spleen injury] until the morning of the final, ripped a shot right under the crossbar. My hands went up but the puck bounced along the goal line and the goalie covered it in time.

Dupuis: We were at a loss as to what to change to make our game better. Can you ever be fully prepared for an Olympic final? Probably not. We were anxious, nervous, questioning things — which does not translate well to the ice. I was sitting on the bench in the last three minutes of the game worried that we were actually going to lose. You can never let yourself go to that place as an athlete.

Miller: We didn’t lose the gold medal because it was never ours to begin with. It’s a dangerous perspective to think otherwise.

Campbell: I really, really remember their celebration. And I really, really, really remember standing on the blue line and looking over at [veterans] Stacy Wilson and France St-Louis, knowing that they weren’t getting another chance. They were done. It makes me wish I’d played better. That’s all I remember about that game: Stacy and France. Even when I see them to this day, it’s painful.

Miller: Standing on the blue line, perspective came to me. I thought about my mentors and my experience as a police officer — that the loss of a dream was different than the loss of life. My mind shifted, for a few minutes, when they were putting the gold medals around the U.S. players’ necks. There was a calmness. I thought, ‘Wow, this is an amazing moment, seeing the first Olympic medals presented in women’s hockey.’ Just for a couple of minutes.

Team USA captain Cammi Granato accepts her gold medal. (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Team USA captain Cammi Granato accepts her gold medal. (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Sunohara: From time to time, I see the photo of me leaning on the bench crying. I don’t mind the U.S. anthem, I just hate hearing it at the end of a game. It was surprising that the sun still shone the next day. I was doing interviews with sunglasses because my eyes were swollen. Someone asked me “what now?” and I said I just wanted the opportunity to play in Salt Lake City.

Miller: When I left the ice, I fell apart. I was absolutely destroyed. It was painful for several months. But then I got my footing, found a new dream, chased it, and eventually it was in the rearview mirror. You learn and move on.

Campbell: I was mad. I was mad at the world for six months and pointed fingers. And then I finally looked in the mirror and pointed the finger at myself, and that was when I became a better athlete. I trained harder, I took my preparation to a new level, I forgave myself for not playing up to my ability. I was on a mission for four years.

Hefford: That win was great for USA Hockey and for women’s hockey in the U.S. For us, I think it lit a fire under us. We realized we had to keep pushing. When you look at our record post-Japan, it’s pretty awesome. We went into the 2002 Olympics with no talk of us being the favourite, and that helped us psychologically.

Campbell: I had almost the exact opposite feeling on the blue line in 2002. As the captain I got the first gold medal and then watched as every single one of my teammates got theirs.

Final thoughts

Rider: We accomplished the impossible; we were told this was impossible. Everybody in a position of knowledge and authority, people I respected most, told us to stop because women’s hockey would never be in the Olympics. Even the female council at Hockey Canada. There were two provinces that voted against [entering the Olympics] and the provinces that supported us insisted we grow the grassroots first. We said, ‘The grassroots will grow when they’ve got role models and opportunities to aspire to.’

Hefford: That whole year we knew what we were doing in terms of opening doors for female hockey players. Making that dream real. We were seeing media coverage day-in and day-out during centralization. Suddenly it was legit. We were doing something that people cared about. I took it seriously because if I were a young girl at that time, I would have been following everything.

Miller: If I could do it over again, I would make sure I had a little bit more fun, and making sure my players did too. As the leader, I think I could have done a better job relaxing and trying to keep perspective. I was offered the chance to continue as Canada’s national team coach as a volunteer and I declined. I took the professional coaching job I was offered in the United States.

Hefford: Even as recently as 2014, Hayley Wickenheiser and I who were a part of that [’98 team] and remember the losing, could share that with the players. We explained that when we won in Salt Lake City, we didn’t think about how much ice time we got or who sat on the bench. We got to stand on the blue line with gold medals. This year will be the first Olympic Games where there isn’t a Canadian player from a silver-medal team. The girls that are there [in Seoul] have always won. Hopefully they remember what we told them.