First women's world championship in Ottawa changed lives of Canada's captains

OTTAWA - For those on the Canadian women's hockey team old enough to remember the first world women's hockey championship in 1990, it was a light-bulb moment in their lives.

Ottawa was the host city of the first women's world championship sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation 23 years ago. The tournament has returned to that city, and Canada opens its championship defence against the U.S. on Tuesday at SBP Arena.

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Six players on Canada's 2013 world championship team weren't born yet in 1990. But current captain Hayley Wickenheiser and her assistants Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette were pre-teens.

An 11-year-old Wickenheiser was playing boys hockey in Calgary with the double-A bantam Northwest Bruins. Ouellette, 10, was also playing on a boys minor hockey team Montreal. Hefford, 12, played for the Kingston Kodiaks girls' hockey club.

Watching on television from their various regions of the country as Canada won gold wearing bright pink jerseys, those three players were amazed to see there was a future for them in women's hockey.

"I didn't even know girls played hockey until I watched the 1990 worlds," says Wickenheiser, now 34.

"It made me feel validated, that what I was doing was important and was OK because for so much of my childhood, all I was told was how I didn't belong. It felt like finally I belonged and there was 10,000 people there to prove it.

"Even though those jerseys were pretty bad, it started something. I thought 'that's where I'm going to be some day. Finally, there's something for me to play for.'"

Even though she played with girls, Hefford's opponents were always boys. If her team wanted to play other girls, the players travelled to Toronto and Ottawa.

"I still felt like I was a girl playing a boys' sport," the 35-year-old recalls. "At the time, I didn't know a lot about there being a Team Canada. When I was really young, six or seven, starting to play hockey, I always thought I would play in the NHL.

"I remember watching that tournament on television and watching them come out in their pink jerseys. As your dreams sort of evolve, that's when playing for Canada and competing in a world championship became real for me."

In the absence of female hockey heroes to that point, Ouellette also dreamed of playing in the NHL for the Montreal Canadiens.

"I didn't have any other girls on my team. I really rarely saw any other girls playing hockey," Ouellette says now. "To see these women playing hockey and being that great at it and playing for our country was the beginning of a dream. It was a huge eye-opener for me."

The Canadian team, coached by Dave McMaster, beat the U.S. 5-2 in the final to win gold at the Ottawa Civic Centre. Vicky Sunohara, one of the members of that 1990 team, continued to play for Canada up until the 2007 world championships in Winnipeg.

Another 1990 player, defender Geraldine Heaney, is currently coaching her daughter Shannon in the Ontario Women's Hockey Association championships in Ottawa, which coincide with the women's world tournament.

"I'm happy the Ontario provincial girls hockey tournament is on at the same time," Ouellette says. "That's what we need. We need to let them come see they can dream to be in the Olympics, they can dream to be on the national team and actually see us."

Hockey Canada held a reunion of the 1990 squad when Winnipeg hosted the world championship in 2007. The 2013 championship in Ottawa will feature a reunion of players from the world championship teams of 1992, 1994 and 1997.

Many players on the current Canadian team have experienced women's hockey history in Ottawa, however.

A pre-Olympic exhibition game on Jan. 1, 2010, at SBP Arena drew 16,347 spectators, which set a single-game record for attendance at a women's hockey game.

Canada edged the U.S. 3-2 in a shootout in what was their final meeting before the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

Canada went on to beat the U.S. 2-0 in the Olympic final.

"It was great preparation for us leading up to Vancouver," Ouellette recalls.

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