Now in her third NWHL season, Kourtney Kunichika is taking on a new role with the Buffalo Beauts. Once part of one of the most successful energy lines in the league (with Harrison Browne and Devon Skeats), Kunichika finds herself the veteran on an everchanging Beauts roster. The Ice Garden caught up with her earlier this year to discuss how she feels about her new place on the roster, the league’s direction, and the growth of women’s hockey.
You are now the longest-tenured Beaut in current franchise history. How does it feel to come back for a third season, and why was Buffalo your choice once more?
It feels great to be back in Buffalo for my third season. I wasn't sure if I was going to play again, but it's hard to hang up the skates. The Beauts have awesome fans and facilities. I also live in Batavia, which is about an hour away from Buffalo.
What factors did you have to think about when considering retirement, and what ended up being the deciding factor for you to stay in the league?
I thought about starting my career outside of hockey. I'm also getting married in July 2018, so a lot comes with planning that too. I decided to play because I love playing and being a part of the team. I talked with my fiancee, and we agreed to wait on pursuing my business.
Do you commute to Buffalo from Batavia, since you live fairly close? If not, what's the season like for you in terms of living, etc.?
I work at a restaurant and bar near where I live. I work a lot, mainly at night. Therefore, yes, I commute to games, but I don't get to make many practices. Instead, I work out and get on the ice on my own. It isn't ideal, but it's the reality of my situation and some girls have similar ones … I try to work out before I go to work because if I don't, then chances are I won't work out later.
What was your biggest adjustment from year one to year two, and what do you think is your biggest adjustment coming into year three with a title to defend?
I don't think there was a big adjustment from year one to year two. This year we have a lot of new players, so that may be the biggest adjustment for beginning the season.
Roster changes have played a major role in the start of each of the team's two seasons thus far, whether it was visa issues in year one or schedule conflicts for some of your star players in year two. Do you see that continuing? If so, how do you bounce back from it as the season progresses?
Schedule conflicts can be an issue, but honestly we have a skilled enough team to play together and win games regardless. In this league any team can beat the other; it depends who's peaking at the right time.
There's been a lot of turnover — not just on the Beauts' roster, but seemingly throughout the league as a whole — with players shifting to different teams, retiring, centralizing, exploring other leagues, and expansion in the CWHL giving players opportunities overseas. What do you make of this process, as a player who's chosen to stay in the NWHL? What do you think it says for the growth of the sport?
I think the growth of female hockey is amazing. Within the last 10 years it has expanded in tremendous ways. Women are able to pursue their hockey careers all over the world, and so I'm not surprised at the turnover. Women have choices now. From where to play and which league to play in. I've made a life in Batavia, N.Y., with a fiancee and a job. That is a big reason I chose to stay where I am, besides loving to play. It worked out for me and I feel blessed to be where I am. I don't think the growth of women's hockey has reached its peak yet. It has plenty of developing to go, but I'm glad people have stepped up to put it in motion and we (players, parents, fans, organizations, everyone) all have to help push it forward to grow the game.
There's a considerable amount of uncertainty swarming around this third season in the NWHL in terms of keeping the league going. Did that factor at all into your decision?
It's not a factor for me. I hope the league takes the right steps and people support the league so it can continue to grow.
How did you get your start playing hockey, and how did that bring you to Western New York? Did you ever think that would translate into a pro playing career?
Growing up in Southern California, I've played roller hockey all my life. I didn't start playing ice hockey until I was nine or 10 when my best friend, Ariane Yokoyama, got me to play in Pasadena. I eventually got scouted and played college hockey for RIT, also where Ariane went. I didn't imagine I would be playing professionally, but playing in the NWHL has been a great experience and honor.
You're entering this third season as one of a handful of nonwhite players in the NWHL. How important is providing that kind of representation, especially for Asian-Americans in sports?
Being a minority in the NWHL, and hockey in general, isn't something I really think about. However, I do realize I am a minority playing the sport. I understand that a young Asian girl might see me and be like "wow, that could be me." Or someone might root for me because I'm Asian like them — or maybe they aren't even Asian and they just want to cheer for the minority. I'm not saying those are bad things, because I am proud to be Japanese. If the young Asian girl starts playing hockey because she identifies with me as an Asian Professional Women's Hockey Player, that's great. But I hope the way I play is a factor too when people see me. I think it is. I've never felt discriminated against.
What role do you expect to take now, as a veteran on the team? In general, how do you describe your role on the Beauts over the past two seasons, and how does it differ from the role you had as a point producer at RIT?
I think the skill level in the NWHL is higher than it was in college when I played. But that's why I like playing in the league, you get to play against some of the best players out there. I'd like to think of myself as a smart player vs. a point-getter. My vision on the rink helped me accumulate a lot of my points, and that's probably why most of my points are assists. My goal is to be hard to play against in all three zones of the rink. That's how I contributed last season — and now I'm an Isobel Cup Champion. This season is no different.
Off the ice, how has Buffalo treated you? What do you think of the fan community here, as well as the opportunities for young female hockey players?
I think the fans are dedicated and have made playing in the league special. They have shown tons of support and gratitude towards us, and hopefully we have reciprocated with how thankful we are to have them. The NWHL has given young female players in Buffalo, as well as the other three cities, exposure to professional hockey and where they could be some day. It's an opportunity for hope.