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Honoring American Hockey Pioneers

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
On Thursday, four pioneers of American hockey will be recognized by the Colorado Avalanche before the club drops the puck against the Boston Bruins.

Cammi Granato, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter will be honored by the Avs prior to faceoff as part of the team’s opening night festivities. The following night, the four will be enshrined into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as the Class of 2008 in a ceremony on the campus of the University of Denver.

Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles is as thrilled as anyone about seeing the quartet at Pepsi Center Thursday night. Liles skated with Team USA at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the 2005 IIHF Men’s World Championship and the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, and is appreciate of the way those players broke new ground for American hockey.

In addition, Liles grew up as a New York Rangers fan, idolizing Leetch.

“I think it’s great. All of those players have done a lot for USA Hockey,” Liles said. “I’ve played with Leetch and Hull. Brian Leetch was a guy I looked up to and tried to model my game after growing up.”

Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who has skated for the United States in two World Junior Championships (1999, 2000), three World Championships (2002, 2003, 2005) and the 2006 Olympics, knows how it feels to represent his country.

“It’s pretty cool. It doesn’t matter where you come from; you take pride in your country. The fact that we’re honoring those four players is pretty neat,” said Leopold. “I had a chance to play with two of those guys (Hull and Leetch). They definitely paved the way for American hockey and made us better because of it.”

But of course, it’s the Avalanche’s head coach that has the greatest ties to the Class of 2008. Besides the obvious connection to his sister, Tony Granato is very familiar with each member of the class. A 13-year NHL veteran, Granato was first a roommate of Richter’s at the University of Wisconsin before moving on to his NHL career. There, he played with both Richter and Leetch as a member of the New York Rangers.

In international play, Granato skated for Team USA at the 1988 Olympics with Richter and Leetch, while he was also teammates with Hull at 1986 IIHF Men’s World Championship and the 1991 Canada Cup.

While the Avs’ bench boss is pleased to see each of the four players garner such recognition, the chance to watch his sister become the first woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday has an understandably special significance.

“The timing of it couldn’t have been any better. Being in Denver, being on an off-night for us, with all the inductees being in for our game,” said Granato. “I get to finally be a part of some of Cammi’s experiences. Last year I was fortunate enough to go when she was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame because it was after our season. A lot of times when she’s done things in her career I’ve been busy with the team I’ve been a part of.”

Besides being the official opening of the 2008-09 season – and the beginning of Granato’s second term behind the Avalanche’s bench – the Avs’ players realize how important the night will be for their head coach and his family.

“I think it’s going to be pretty special. Cammi kind of wrote the book for women’s hockey really, along with a couple other girls,” said Leopold. “She really helped to bring the game of hockey to girls and women at an elite level and has been a class act her whole life, as her whole family has.When she put on the Red White and Blue, she definitely represented the way all of us should carry ourselves.”

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