By Sean Rooney on May 16, 2018.
All through her life as a hockey player, Jenna Cunningham has blazed a trail for girls to follow in.
So it’s only fitting that, on Thursday, she’ll be the first female athlete inducted to Medicine Hat’s Sports Wall of Fame.
Cunningham and legendary skating coach Gay Dubeau will be the 23rd and 24th members immortalized on the Wall, with a 7:30 p.m. ceremony in the Family Leisure Centre’s gymnasium.
Reached at her home in Calgary last week, the 29-year-old Cunningham was still trying to figure out what other women were previously inducted. The city’s website no longer shows a full list.
“That’s wild,” she wrote in a text message after finding out she’d be the first female athlete. “Well hopefully it’s the start of a trend!”
The only two other women on the Wall were inducted in 1983. Molly Gray is in for building an outdoor rink in 1930 among other things, while Laurie Sharland started bowling and swim teams, a cheer squad and the Medicine Hat Stampede’s Queen contest.
Cunningham’s been on the leading edge of trends for quite some time. At 12, she was part of a girls team that stayed together long enough to be among the first to ever play in Calgary’s Mac’s Midget Tournament. They got to the semifinals in 2004, the first time the event had a female division.
After graduating high school, she played and won Ivy League and conference titles with NCAA school Dartmouth, named a conference all-star twice. Then she was among the first players with the Calgary Inferno women’s team, lifting the Clarkson Cup in 2016 before retiring.
The photo of her hoisting the Canadian Women’s Hockey League trophy is the one that will go on the Wall of Fame. In it, she’s barely containing tears after her team beat Montreal.
“That photo pops up everywhere,” she said. “I wish it was iconic like ‘yes, that’s awesome!’ But there was so much emotion in that day. I don’t know if it was so much the winning part, but the fact our captain gave it to me and let me hoist it, that got me. At the end of the day, that’s why you play. You play in the hope that you’ve garnered respect, you’ve put yourself in a position that people feel as though you deserve to be there.”
Cunningham never played in the Olympics, and there were plenty of Olympians on that year’s Inferno team. They knew the Cup was the gold medal for players who had toiled for years, playing part-time while holding down other jobs.
“I would say that was the pinnacle of my career, for sure,” she said.
Cunningham’s a teacher now, at a kingergarten to Grade 3 school that just opened last year. Another chance to build something from the ground up, much like the girls team in Medicine Hat so many years ago.
“When I look back at where female hockey was when we started — although there isn’t a midget team now in Medicine Hat, the growth of women’s hockey has been exponential,” she said. “You’ve seen the changes in other cities, other towns. A lot of times with the CWHL people say ‘you guys are builders, you’re at the forefront of this.’ Now that you get out of it, you realize a lot of that started a long time ago. It started when we built that first female team when I was 12.”
That experience prepared her well to be part of the Inferno. And she now broadcasts games for the league, which for the first time was able to pay its players this past season and expanded into China.
“It was one more checkmark off the checklist. This is one goal, but it’s not the end goal,” she said. “What’s important is not only getting females in roles as players, but being part of the whole operation of the league. That includes broadcasting; I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to get online, talk the game and hopefully show people that we can broadcast, we have lots of knowledge about the game.”
Having female athletes on Medicine Hat’s Sports Wall of Fame might serve to inspire, too.
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