H anna Bunton has played professional hockey in China, where she put up nearly a point per game and earned a living wage. She has won a world championship gold medal for Canada, threading a pass to a teammate for a tap-in game-winner in overtime against the Americans. She has graced the cover of Elle Canada along with Brigette Lacquette and Sarah Nurse, fellow members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. In short, Bunton has had quite the life in hockey — and she’s only 26.
At the top of the women’s game for much of her career, Bunton is currently playing for the PWHPA’s Calgary chapter, while also working as Hockey Canada’s coordinator of hockey development for its U-18 programs. She coaches on the side too. The Belleville, Ont.-born forward took time for a lengthy chat with Sportsnet on a variety of topics, from heavier ones like the state of women’s professional hockey in North America and the need to address racism in the game, to lighter stuff, like her love of the sport, fashion and her 150-pound dog, a mastiff mix named Raider.
SPORTSNET: What’s Raider up to?
HANNA BUNTON: He’s currently laying on my bed and he’s not supposed to be on my bed. It’s one of the rules, but he looks so comfortable and I know he’ll be quiet while I’m doing this interview if I just let him sleep on the bed. He’s allowed right now, but as soon as this is done he’s getting pushed off the bed [laughs].
He must take up the whole bed.
Basically. He is a huge boy, and he is the most fun to have. He gets so much attention and I just love having such a big dog — honestly, like a horse — in my apartment in Calgary.
You’ve lived there a couple of years now. What made you decide to move?
When the CWHL [Canadian Women’s Hockey League] folded [in 2019], I was unsure where I wanted to be. I decided I wanted something new, to try a place I’d never lived before. One of my really good friends, [PWHPA forward] Rebecca Leslie, was in Calgary. We ended up living together when I first moved here. I love the decision I made. It’s so fun being close to the mountains, I’ve gotten really into skiing and snowboarding since I’ve been out here.
When are you on the ice next?
We’re typically practicing Wednesday nights, later at night, and Sunday nights.
What does later at night mean?
Like 8:45 [laughs] until about 10 or 10:15.
And then you all work the next morning.
Yes. One of my best friends here, Kaitlin Willoughby, she’s a full-time nurse. She starts at 7 a.m. and she’s at practice on Sunday nights till 10:15. It’s pretty impressive what some people do.
I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but I think people who don’t already know should know about the realities here for a lot of the best female players in the world.
When’s your next game?
We have an exhibition on Friday — it’ll be only our second game of the year. And then our next showcase is March 4 to 6. [Editor’s note: The next PWHPA showcase is in Ottawa in late February, but Calgary isn’t among the four teams featured that weekend.]
How many times a week are you on the ice?
I would say, on average, two. Potentially. Maybe once.
What needs to change about the state of the pro women’s game?
Obviously, if you want the best product on the ice with women’s hockey, the opportunities and the resources need to be there. You’re not going to get the best product when you’re on the ice once or twice a week, you’re not playing games, you’re working, you’re coaching. You can’t be your best at everything you’re doing when you’re spread thin.
We’ve seen so many players in the NHL who hit their peak at 26, 27, and unfortunately that’s just not the case with women’s hockey, because by the time you’re 26, 27 — right around my age — you’re only on the ice maybe once a week, or you’ve already stopped playing because the opportunities aren’t there. I think when those opportunities are there, women’s hockey is going to change drastically. I would love for there to be a league where you can get paid a liveable wage — where you’re able to live day to day comfortably, and you’re able to train every single day. When that happens, women’s hockey is going to explode.
Do you see that happening while you’re still playing?
I hope so. I’ve always said that I will play until someone tells me, “You can’t anymore.” [Laughs.] I will do my best. At the end of the day, I’m well aware of everything hockey has brought to me and I want those opportunities for the next generation. And I hope that, if it’s not in the next couple years, at the very least, in the future the little girls that I coach have those opportunities.
I feel badly asking you some of these questions, because you and other professional female players hear them all the time. Is it tiring to repeat these same messages about things that need to change and never seem to?
Yeah, I think so. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s a little bit tiring but if we don’t keep having these conversations, we’re probably going to go backwards. And I think having these conversations maybe inspires other people to have these conversations and it reaches different people than it’s reached in the past. We want to be having these conversations or we’re not going to see the change.
Well said. Growing up in Belleville, how’d you get interested in the game?
I think I started playing when I was about four or five. The Belleville Bulls were the OHL team that were there at the time and we had season tickets, and I would go with my dad and my grandfather. It was a pretty special excursion, every Wednesday and Saturday were their home games and it was something I always looked forward to. I had a little Bulls bag I would bring. I had a stuffed bull and a jersey. I used to even take stats at the game. So I don’t know, maybe I was more of a nerd watching it, but it was such a fun experience.
Did you aspire to be a Bull?
Yeah, I was always thinking, I want to play and I want to be as good as these guys are. I remember looking up to them, thinking they were the coolest people in the world.
You also played basketball and ran track competitively. Why did you choose hockey ultimately?
When I got older, I saw that hockey could probably take me somewhere.
Where did you think it could take you?
There was a team called the East Coast Selects and they would scout and find players in Ontario. I ended up going to Europe in both Grade 7 and 8 with them for a summer travel experience. We went to three different countries each year and there were girls from all over Ontario and a couple from the U.S. That felt like the first time that I had been noticed from somewhere outside of Belleville and I thought, Oh, this is pretty cool, hockey could take me somewhere.
There was a girl named Jackie Jarrell, who’s from Belleville as well. She’s about 10 years older than me and she went to Mercyhurst and played Division 1 hockey there. So I saw her and thought, Oh wow, I can get a scholarship somewhere.
My last year of midget, I was offered to play in the junior league with Whitby and I decided I was going to stay back and play a year in Belleville. [Editor’s note: With the Bearcats that season, Bunton put up 94 points in 51 games]. I was in Grade 10 and I think it was probably one of the better decisions in my hockey career, because I ended up getting noticed by Team Canada that year. I was able to be a dominant player in Belleville as opposed to going to Whitby and maybe struggling to find myself.
What was that first experience like with the national team?
I made a series against the U.S. in the summer, my first Team Canada U-18 camp, and then unfortunately I was released for the world [championship] roster. That was a devastating time in my hockey career. But I ended up playing in Whitby [the next season], and we were pretty dominant in the PWHL that year. … I went on to play for Team Canada [in 2013], and we won gold at the U-18 world championships — that was really fun. We had a great team and we were so close, and I went into that tournament knowing that I wanted to be one of the top players and make a difference.
And you did, in overtime. What do you remember about that play?
It’s probably one of the craziest games I’ve ever been a part of. We scored to tie it with 18 seconds left in the game, and then scored in the first two minutes of overtime to win gold. It was my first shift of overtime, and I was out with Karly Heffernan. I cut behind the net, got rid of my defender and I walked along the goal line and saw that she was open in front of the net. I passed it to her and she had kind of a tap-in goal. I remember that moment was so surreal. I think I saw it before it even happened.
The IIHF cancelled that tournament this year and last year because of COVID, but went ahead with the men’s [until they had to cancel the most recent edition due to COVID outbreaks]. What are your thoughts on that?
It was definitely disappointing to see. I have a different lens on it. I coordinate the U-18 program [for Hockey Canada], so just being able to now work for the program that gave me so much is pretty special. When I think back to my friendships and the experiences I’ve had and the development it helped within my own career, I just can’t imagine those girls not having that same experience. It’s happened a couple years in a row now. I hope the IIHF finds a way to make that tournament happen. I think not only do the girls deserve it, but it’s a crucial step in development for these girls to get to the next level in their hockey careers.
Is there a player you want to highlight that’s part of that U-18 program that you think has a bright future?
There’s a player named Avi Adams. She’s going to Cornell University, so maybe I’m a little biased [that’s Bunton’s alma mater]. She’s quite a player and she ended up making that world roster and I was excited to see what she could do at that level.
What happened with your own national team aspirations by the end of your college career?
In college, I played on the U-22 team, which is now the development team, with Team Canada. I had gone to a couple of senior camps and that was definitely my aspiration. But unfortunately my senior year at Cornell, around Christmastime, I wasn’t selected for a tournament with the development team and I had previously been on the team for three years. It was pretty disappointing and they kind of just said my career within Hockey Canada at that point was taking a stop. It was obviously really hard for me. I was about to graduate and thought maybe there would be some opportunities with the senior team, but at the same time I think it took a weight off my shoulders in my senior year and I was able just to play for the love of it. I think that was when I got the best out of my hockey career at Cornell.
Did you wonder whether college was the pinnacle for you?
I think a little bit. Obviously a lot of really talented players end up hanging their skates up even before their career’s at its peak. I knew I was not ready to be done playing hockey, but I knew a career had to take a step forward and the hockey had to take, maybe, a step backwards, which was something that was going to be really sad to me. But what happened with the [CWHL expansion to China] was the perfect timing, just when I was graduating. I feel like I was pretty lucky. Going into China, I felt like I was at the top of where I had been in hockey as well.
How do you describe that experience of playing in China [Bunton played there for two seasons, until the CWHL folded in 2019], helping to grow the game there and also helping develop China’s national team players ahead of the these Beijing Olympics?
It was honestly an experience that’s hard to describe. To be able to be immersed in a culture that otherwise I don’t know if I would have gotten the opportunity to be involved in was quite special. And there’s just so many funny stories you wouldn’t even believe happened. You’re obviously trying to be a professional sport in an area that hasn’t had that sport before. There were so many stories about how they thought ice was ready and there were huge holes in it, and we go in there and we have to tell them: “We can’t play in those conditions.” We’d have people come in and walk through our locker room without thinking twice about it. It was such a funny, unique experience but it was really special. To have all the Canadian teams come over to China, I had a lot of friends on other teams and got to kind of share the experience with them. I had a scooter over there and I’d take them for scooter rides.
Was that the most money you’ve made playing hockey?
Yeah, for sure [laughs].
Star players were paid six figures. Did you feel the future of the sport was headed in that direction?
A little bit. I think I was realistic that probably coming back to Canada, that’s not going to be the case. We did a lot of work in the community and with [Chinese-born teammates] to have that salary, but I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t extremely nice to be playing hockey, making a living wage and just getting to train full-time. That’s when I felt I was at the very best in my hockey career, because I was able to train every day, full-time. Then you come back to Canada and you have to work full-time, you’re coaching on the side, you’re practicing maybe twice a week.
That’s your current situation.
In your spare time, I hear you’re also very into fashion. Who do you look up to most in the fashion world?
Fashion in the last maybe two or three years has been something I really enjoy. I’d say my biggest fashion icon would probably be Hailey Bieber. I love how simple and elegant her style is, and I love how she does a lot of oversized looks. That’s something I’ve always loved doing.
Who’s the best-dressed in the women’s game? Maybe… you?
[Laughs.] I think I would get some heat if I said I was the most stylish. There’s a lot of people. One thing about style that’s fun is that it’s honestly how you see it. How something makes you feel may not be the same as the way it makes someone else feel — that’s the cool thing about it. Someone like Marie-Philip Poulin has great style. I love that she always wears hats to games. That’s super fun.
You have so few games, you could really nail it with your outfits ahead of every one.
It’s actually true. [Laughs.]
Do you know what you’ll be wearing in March to your team’s next showcase event?
I love a good matching set, a suit or something like that, and I slick my hair back in a bun. That’s my go-to look. It’s funny, I had some new outfits for the games that were in Toronto [in December], but I ended up not being able to play in those showcase games, so I have those outfits stored. It was a tough decision, but I ended up not playing because of everything going on with the pandemic at that time, and we were about to be leaving for Europe for our U-18 program, and that was happening within a week of that showcase. I was the lead of that team, so I thought it was in my best interest that I was healthy before going to the world championships for work.
When was the last game you played?
Nova Scotia would’ve been the last one. [Last] November. It’s been so long.
It has. And it’s also been a long time since you posted a vlog. Your last one was in September, and you “committed” back then to two a month. It’s been crickets ever since.
[Laughs.] Yeah, you’re holding me accountable, I like that. I’ll get back at it. It’ll be my new year’s resolution. I had a little ski trip this weekend. We stayed in Banff, and I actually vlogged it, so it’ll probably be going up within the week.
Is that an important part of being a pro hockey player, being visible in that way?
There’s obviously two sides to it. It’s something I really enjoy doing. But I also think as hockey players in general, not just female hockey players, it’s one sport where I feel like maybe we don’t show our personality as much as other sports. I think that’s something that really helps engagement with fans, when they feel like they know who they’re watching.
Recently you released a statement on your social media about Jacob Panetta, shortly after he was suspended from his ECHL team. [Panetta allegedly made a racist gesture toward Jordan Subban during a game.] Why was that important to you?
It’s obviously a heavy conversation. I just felt it was necessary to release something because I feel like as white people and as white athletes, a lot of the times we rely on our BIPOC community to speak out on these issues and I just felt like it was time. It wasn’t just their job to condemn the racism that was in hockey. Whether it was intentional or not, you have to realize what your gestures could make someone else feel. And you have to be aware of what you’re doing and who you’re doing it to. I think obviously it was disappointing to see. I felt a really strong need to speak out as a white hockey player and not just let the conversation fall on Sarah Nurse, on P.K. Subban, on players like that. When we’re the ones who’ve created the problem, we also need to be the ones to stand up and start the conversation on fixing it.
That was really well-put. Thank you. You’re close with a lot of members of Team Canada. How much are you looking forward to watching your friends compete at the Olympics?
I’m so excited. I’ve been around them so much this year, them being centralized in Calgary, and there are so many players I’m really close with. I know they’re so prepared. Since their world championships [in 2021] I can only imagine they’ve gotten so much stronger, being together every single day since then. I think with all the challenges they’ve had this year with the pandemic and cancellations, I’m so excited to see them get over there and compete, and I know that they’re probably the most prepared they’ve ever been. It’s going to be so fun to watch.
What will it be like watching Mélodie [Daoust] compete over there? [Bunton and Daoust, a forward for Canada, are dating].
I’m so excited to watch her. I’ve known Mélodie for a long time. We actually played in Germany together in a Nation’s Cup when we were on the development team, so we’ve been good friends for a long time. I’ve always been a huge supporter and fan of hers. Obviously getting to watch her compete, being her partner and that side of it is something that’s different for me, but it’s so exciting to watch someone that you love and care about get to accomplish their goals. I’ve always been so impressed with the player that she is and the friend that she is, and she’s always been amazing, but to see it from a different side and be able to cheer her on is going to be so fun and exciting. I’m so proud of how hard she works and I know she’s been through a lot this year, being in Calgary and being away from Mathéo [her son], and this is kind of the end goal. It’ll be really nice to watch her accomplish this for a third time.
How will you cope with the nerves?
I’m honestly a pretty calm person. I think I’ll be pretty relaxed and I feel like in those games I’ve always had my best friends playing. Emily Clark [a forward for Canada] has been my best friend for over 10 years, so I’ve always been really close to the players. I do get really nervous but I feel like I almost try to be a calming presence for them. But it’s honestly harder to be a fan watching than it was even playing those high-stakes games as player.
Let’s hear your gold medal game-winning goal prediction.
You know what, I think I would be a really poor betting person if I did not say Poulin.
Solid bet. Thank you very much for this conversation, for addressing so many topics. Is your dog still asleep on your bed?
Oh my gosh, Raider is now on his back on the bed. He looks like the king of the bed. As soon as I hang up, he is onto the couch and off the bed. [Laughs.]
A couple minutes later, Bunton texted this photo of Raider on the bed, but said she’d given him the boot: