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    Monday, February 23, 1998

    Sunohara's Nagano reunion

    By STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

      The tears started when they joined hands around Canadian hockey star Vicky Sunohara and began to sing.
     They serenaded the long lost daughter of the late David Sunohara, whose father and mother left the ancient Japanese mountain village of Ueda-shi early this century for a better life in Canada.
      "It's like a Home Sweet Home song," a Japanese journalist said of the sad and sweet melody that rang softly through Room 203 at the Tearoom Goodday Hotel.
     Vicky Sunohara, who had arrived anxious and nervous an hour or so earlier, also was crying as she looked around the room at her new family, many of whom called out her name, crying: "Vicky-san! Welcome home!"
     Vicky Sunohara's Olympic journey had become joyous and beautiful once again.
     She had cried four days earlier, but out of pain and frustration at losing the gold-medal game in women's hockey to the rival Americans.
     But now, her tears were of happiness and the silver medal worn around her neck suddenly didn't seem so meaningless, not with all the love and joy flowing through the small meeting room in the tiny hotel, 35 kilometres -- and a world away -- from where the Americans had defeated her team at Nagano's Big Hat Arena.
     Her once heavy heart was now glowing.
     Vicky Sunohara had never been to Japan and, in fact, knew little of her Japanese heritage. Her father David had died suddenly of a heart attack 20 years ago when Vicky was just seven and, although her mom wanted her to take Japanese lessons on Saturday afternoons, hockey, floor hockey and bowling took precedence. There was little time for Japanese.
     Her mom Cathy is of Ukrainian descent, but always stressed the importance of her Japanese ancestry to Vicky, her sister Kim and brother Rob. Her uncles, her dad's brothers, also had kept the ties alive, visiting Japan on occasion and telling Vicky about her grandparents' village and her distant relatives still living there.
     Never did it cross her mind that one day she too would make the trip to Japan. David Sunohara, a first-generation Canadian and former player with the Ryerson Rams hockey team in Toronto, never made it over.
     But when Nagano was selected as host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and Vicky's status on the team was solidified with a strong showing at the 1997 world championships in Kitchener, her family began making plans to visit nearby Ueda-shi.
     The first two days after the favored Canadian women's hockey team touched down in Japan for the Olympic tournament, Sunohara, through the Canadian Olympic Association, was inundated with interview requests from various Japanese media outlets.
     A number of press outlets offered to drive her to Ueda-shi and arrange a family reunion. Though thrilled with the attention, Sunohara decided that any trip to her family's ancestral village would have to wait until after the Games. And when Team Canada lost the gold-medal game to the Americans, Sunohara's heart wasn't into the trip anymore. She just wanted to return home to Toronto.
     Fortunately, the former star centre for Northeastern University decided to follow her heart and make the trek, which truly turned out to be a journey of a lifetime.
     The details of the reunion were worked out by Hiroyuki Nakano, a staff writer with the Shinano Mainichi newspaper. And on a drab and cold afternoon last Saturday, two taxis left the Olympic village -- Sunohara, Nakano and National Film Board of Canada director Lyn Wright in one, and cinematographer Michael Grippo and a Toronto Sun reporter in the other.
     About 45 minutes later, after passing through a series of impressive mountain tunnels, the small entourage pulled into the equally drab city of Ueda-shi. Twice, the taxis had to stop for directions, but finally came upon a small hotel where Canadian and Japanese flags were flying all around the parking lot and a crowd of distant relatives, young and old, were standing outside to greet the cars.
     Stepping out of the cab, nervous and anxious, but still managing to smile, Sunohara was escorted upstairs into a tiny ballroom where she was led to a seat of honor at the head table, after walking through a gantlet of hugs, bows and kisses.
     The warmth inside the room was overwhelming. Hanging over the head table were a couple of hand-crafted signs, reading: Vicky Sunohara, Good Luck. Canadian and Japanese flags hung on each side and there was a third flag featuring a silver medal with congratulations written on it.
     There were smiles everywhere and already a few tears, as a group of elderly men and women began fussing over their long-lost Vicky-san. One elderly aunt, her hands placed on Sunohara's face, looked around the room and cried: "Vicky! You look just like my daughter!"
     Tamehei Sunohara, her closest Japanese relation, stood on a small podium and welcomed his niece to their home, Nakano quietly translating the words.
     Beaming and overwhelmed with the reception, Vicky Sunohara took the microphone and said: "I feel like a queen right now.
     "Before I came to Japan and Nagano, I had no idea that I had so many relatives here. And since I've come here, I've been overwhelmed with all the support and kindness I've seen. You people ..."
     As she tried to continue, applause filled the room.
     "Because I was playing in the Olympics, I really didn't get a long enough time to visit and see Ueda. Hopefully, if you'll allow me, I'd like to come back in the future."
     At that point, two teenaged girls, dressed in beautiful Japanese kimonos, presented their cousin with a hand-carved wooden plaque with a lion on it, and a little girl, wearing a Wheaties head band with a Maple Leaf on it, shyly presented her aunt with a bouquet of flowers.
     For the next hour or so, between bites of noodles, sushi and other traditional Japanese dishes, Sunohara greeted every relative in the room and looked at a handful a family photos, including some of her grandparents.
     And when it was time to leave, the people in the room joined their hands over their heads to form a bridge, and beckoned Vicky to walk through it.
     As she did, her aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and second and third cousins, patted her gently on the back and head.
     And as she made her way out the door, they sang The Home Sweet Home song. And everyone cried some more.