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The hockey journey of Melissa Junkala - that others soon followed

Sarah Johnston may have paved the way to Cornell University for future Olympian and younger sister Rebecca, but it could well be argued that Melissa Junkala (now Holterman) helped pave the way for the older Johnston roughly a decade earlier.

In fact, one might not be wrong in asserting that Holterman opened the floodgates for the eventual stream of Sudbury talent that would head south of the border, a grouping that now exceeds a couple of dozen athletes and continues to grow every few years.

Not that Holterman can lay claim to being a proud Sudbury Lady Wolves' alumnus.

Those teams did not even exist until the athletic young woman was hanging up her goaltending skates, at least as far as the NCAA was concerned, just before the turn of the millennium.

Ironically, her door was opened, at least in small part, thanks to a coincidental contribution from her older brother, Kristian. "My parents and I were at one of his tournament hockey games and there was a girl goaltender on the other team," said Holterman, now 44 years old and having spent the past twenty years in Ottawa.

"That made me aware that I could play hockey."

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a far different time for young female hockey talent. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Justine Blainey, whose family initiated the legal challeng versus the Ontario Hockey Association on the basis of gender discrimination. At just 11 years old or so, (Junkala) Holterman was somewhat blissfully unaware of the bigger picture.

"They weren't stopping girls (from playing), but they weren't actively letting people know that girls could play," recalled the mother of two, who cracked an atom rep (boys) roster in Garson, but for the most part, continued to compete within the boys houseleague system locally.

"The boys on my teams were great; they were really protective of me, for the most part. My parents might have seen more of it (the pushback)."

Still, it wasn't until she was 15 or 16 that Holterman would even contemplate a future beyond her minor hockey days. "My dad was first approached (by Cornell) at the Brampton Girls Hockey Tournament,” said Holterman. "I was maybe in grade ten. It was really just a bug in our ear - but it went from there."

By then, the academically inclined puck-stopper who would study Neuro-Biology at Cornell had garnered enough attention locally to be asked to backstop the Sudbury Flyers senior women's A team, a squad comprised largely of women between the ages of 20 and 40. "They were all drinking age - except for me," said Holterman with a laugh.

Where current Providence Friars' freshman netminder Mireille Kingsley likely fielded reach-outs, in some way, shape or form, by a couple of dozen institutions or more on both sides of the border, the recruitment of female prospects 25 years ago was not nearly as elaborate.

"Cornell was the only one that really approached me," said Holterman. "I don't think the other schools, at that time, were doing much Canadian recruiting. Our team, when I was there, was half Canadian, half American. We had, by far, the highest percentage of Canadians."

If the entire process was still very much in its infancy, it only stood to reason then that the entire Junkala clan was navigating a labyrinth of the unknown. "I didn't know anybody who had been recruited when I was that age, my parents didn't know anybody, so we didn't really know which questions to ask," said Holterman.

It turns out that the 1995 Cornell recruitment class would include a pair of freshman goaltenders, with the Valley East native sharing the responsibilities, during her career between the pipes, with a partner who was taller and a touch more consistent - while she described herself as "smaller, with the ability to fly around as much as I could".

Though second in the pecking order, Holterman would still see plenty of action, certainly enough to play out her four years with the Big Red, even if it took a little time to fully appreciate what she had.

"There was one year where I looked at switching, but I'm glad that I stayed," she said. "Playing at Cornell was an amazing opportunity, even if I didn't fully understand that at the time. Back then, that was my reality, and I just kind of thought I was like everyone else."

"As I got older and looked back on it and heard stories from more and more people, I realized that this wasn't something that everybody got to do. I was fortunate enough to get to go and play. We travelled to Europe, to Minnesota, played against most of the Ivy League schools, met a great group of girls and made a whole bunch of contacts."

"But I was used to being a top player on the team," Holterman added. "I struggled with that when I was there, and it took away from me realizing how awesome it was to be there."

Thankfully, in the long-run, there were no ill-effects.

When Holterman and her Sudbury born husband (Chet) moved to Ottawa in 2000, she would attend tryouts for a new WNHL (Women's National Hockey League) team being launched in the nation's capital. When 16 other goaltenders opted to do the same, she decided it was time to move on.

In her case, moving on would mean a return to the senior circuit from which she originally came, suiting up with a AA team that attended OWHA provincials for the next 15 years or so, before recently slowing down a little and accepting a drop to A level competition.

Blessed with two boys, Holterman has not had to worry about trying to find out just how much things might have changed for the young women of 2020 involved in the sport of hockey. In her mind, however, the walls need not be built quite so young.

"Coming from a background of playing boys hockey myself, if I had a girl, I would probably have put her in boys hockey to start," she said. "But to be honest, at the youngest ages, I don't know why we need to have just girls or just boys. Why can't they all be mixed? When they get older, then we need to separate."

Now there's an idea her parents undoubtedly would have welcomed at the time their daughter was blazing a trail for the girls that would follow her path.

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