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Women’s World Cup of Hockey: 25 years of empowerment and counting

Team Canada's Vicky Sunohara, seen wearing her 1990 team tracksuit at the Women's World Hockey Championships in Winnipeg in 2007, was so ecstatic to be representing her country at the inaugural Women’s World Cup of Hockey that it didn’t bother her that instead of Canada’s traditional red and white, the jerseys were hot pink.

Adrian Wyld/CP

It's been more than 25 years since Vicky Sunohara pulled on a Canadian jersey for the inaugural Women's World Cup of Hockey in 1990. The talented young forward – described by Canada's coach as the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey in a New York Times article – was ecstatic to be representing her country. It didn't bother her that instead of Canada's traditional red and white, the jerseys were hot pink.

"There was a lot of talk about us wearing pink," Sunohara said. "As much as the Canadian flag is red and white, I didn't care as long as we were playing for Canada."

Not all her teammates shared that sentiment. For some players, the pink jerseys were symbolic of the inequality women faced in the sport.

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"We didn't want to wear that pink jersey, that's for sure," France Saint-Louis, one of Sunohara's teammates in 1990, said. "The national team on the men's side, they always wore the red jersey."

The pink was part of a marketing strategy for the first International Ice Hockey Federation-recognized Women's World Cup, held in Ottawa. Despite discontent from some players over the uniforms, fans embraced the "pink power." People filled the stands in the Ottawa Civic Centre arena, wearing pink T-shirts and waving pink pompoms. Even arena staff joined in, decorating the Zamboni with pink flamingos.

Canada defeated the United States in the championship game, winning a gold medal on home ice. It was the first of many milestones for women's hockey in Canada.

The women's world championship returns to Canada, starting Monday in Kamloops, B.C. But the inaugural World Cup – and the thousands of fans who embraced it – was a harbinger of change on the world stage.

Getting the IIHF to recognize the World Cup wasn't easy. Women's hockey advocates in North America and Europe had worked for years to get the IIHF's stamp of approval.

"It was just one big team of worldwide women's hockey enthusiasts that collectively pursued a common goal," Fran Rider, president and founder of the Ontario Women's Hockey Association, said. She was one of the many Canadian women working toward international recognition for women's hockey in the late 1980s and early '90s.

Rider grew up playing hockey in Canada in the 1960s and '70s. At the time, women faced narrow competition and limited ice access. Women usually skated in the late evening, when the men's teams had finished their practices and games.

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"You really appreciated the other players and the other teams," Rider said. "We shared a love of hockey. We wanted to play it, wanted to make it better for the future players."

Rider and her ilk helped smooth the ice for the next generation of female players, many of whom were inspired by the 1990 competition.

As the tournament played out in Ottawa, Hayley Wickenheiser – then just 12 – sat in front of a television in her parents' basement in Calgary. She watched intently as the Canadians won.

"It was the first time I had ever seen women play hockey," Wickenheiser said. "Up until that point I had always played with boys. I didn't really know women played hockey at that level. So it was pretty cool to watch, very inspiring."

Seeing that tournament changed the trajectory of her career, Wickenheiser said.

"It was the first time I really thought to myself I had a future outside of going to university and getting a scholarship," she says. "It gave me something to dream about and look forward to."

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Wickenheiser would soon become one of the most prolific women's hockey players in the world. Today she boasts four Olympic gold medals and is Canada's top scorer in women's hockey. She was also the first woman in the world to score a point in a men's professional league, while playing in Finland in 2003.

A decade after the 1990 World Cup, the number of women playing hockey in Canada more than quadrupled, to more than 50,000 players from around 8,000, according to Hockey Canada. As of 2010, Hockey Canada listed more than 85,000 women enrolled in programs across the country.

"Women's hockey in Canada became the fastest-growing sport in this country for over a decade," Sue Scherer, Canada's captain at the inaugural World Cup, said. "The 1990 worlds here in Canada was the beginning of a new evolution for girl's hockey."

Women's hockey was added to the Canada Winter Games for the first time in 1991. That tournament was Wickenheiser's debut as a powerful force in the sport. She scored the winning goal in the championship game, claiming the title for her home province of Alberta.

"It was sort of the beginning of my journey to the national team," Wickenheiser said.

Shortly thereafter she won her first world championship with Team Canada.

"That was a big moment," Wickenheiser said. "The starting point for myself and the national women's team to get on the world stage and establish ourselves as a dominant force."

With women's hockey included in the Canada Winter Games and a Women's World Cup recognized by the IIHF, players and organizers focused on completing the hat trick: the Olympics. Advocates pushed for women's hockey to make its debut in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. The bid failed. But after continued efforts and co-operation by hockey organizations around the world, women's hockey was introduced to Nagano, Japan in 1998.

"We realized the impossible dream, which is getting women's hockey into the Olympics," Rider said. "We did that by working together and not worrying about boundaries or opposition."

Wickenheiser and other players had been waiting patiently for their chance to compete at the highest level. Their Olympic dreams were initially shrouded in uncertainty.

"I didn't know if it was ever going to be in the Olympics," Wickenheiser said. "I remember I was at a hockey school in B.C., and my mom came in and told me it was accepted as an Olympic sport. I knew right then and there, that would be where I wanted to go."

Wickenheiser made Canada's 1998 Olympic roster as one of the youngest players on the team. By then Saint-Louis was a Team Canada veteran, the oldest player at 39. She remembers clearly the day she found out she made the team.

"I was so happy, it was one of the best days of my life," Saint-Louis said. "I was crying, I couldn't believe it."

It was the first and last Olympic Games for Saint-Louis, who took home a silver medal.

But for Wickenheiser it was just the beginning. She has since played on every Canadian Olympic team and has won five Olympic medals. She was captain when the country won its fourth consecutive gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games.

There have been other significant gains in the sport since Nagano. Today, female players can attain scholarships and funding at Canadian universities, where most schools have a women's varsity team. Funding models and development programs have improved from the youngest players to the most senior athletes, with better training facilities and more equitable ice time.

The Canadian Women's Hockey League, created in 2007, offers women a professional league with teams in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto and Brampton, Ont. In December, players from Les Canadiennes de Montreal faced off against the Boston Pride of the U.S. National Women's Hockey League as part of the NHL's annual Winter Classic. Although the game wasn't televised, it was a major step for both women's leagues. This month, the CWHL championship game was at Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre and broadcast live on Sportsnet.

Despite the many triumphs, women in Canada's hockey community agree there's room for improvement. While the NWHL pays its players, the CWHL does not. Players in women's pro leagues compete at great personal cost, and most need a career outside hockey for financial stability.

"When you've come so far, you appreciate so much of what you've got," Sunohara, who won three Olympic medals and numerous world championships with Team Canada since donning that pink jersey in 1990, said. She now coaches the University of Toronto women's hockey team.

"A women's professional league would be just amazing," she said. "To be able to do something that you absolutely love and get paid for it, I think would be the ultimate for women's hockey."

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