From Girl to Gold Medalist to NHL Scout
USA star Cammi Granato has long dreamed big, shutting out the noise and inspiring to women to follow their own hockey aspirationsby Bob Condor / @NHLSeattle_ / NHLSeattle.com
What thousands of fans watched together Thursday afternoon on a Twitter livestream was a poised gold medalist and Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato, smiling and delivering equal parts inspiration and humor. All this despite a lost internet connection for a blip or two. Not surprisingly, Granato and viewers quickly found their way back to the literal fireside chat (more about that).
What fans didn't see at first glance was the girl who loved hockey so fiercely and completely. She grew up playing glorious games of makeshift hockey with her brothers in their family home's basement. Her brother Don, a long-time NHL assistant coach now with Buffalo, was the mastermind of creating imaginary tournament brackets that turned in charted games and results.
Don devised a stickhandling drill on what he called the "Heidenboard," a stationary device that mimics the long strides of a speed skater (hence the nickname to honor Olympic multiple-gold medalist Eric Heiden), on which Don instructed his siblings to add a stickhandling (hockey stick and ball) long before coaches were innovating such drills in the now standard "dry land" training in youth hockey programs at advanced levels. Brother Tony, who played 14 seasons in the NHL, came home one day with a weight vest to induce Don and Cammi to take their turns doing squats with the extra weight.
"We were asking, 'What's a weight vest?' "said Granato on Thursday's livestream. "My brothers were always doing something innovative … we would play mini-hockey for hours after school. The only rule [for Cammi to play] was 'don't tell Mom.'"
That's because Natalie Granato envisioned her daughter becoming a figure skater since youth hockey was a boys sport in the late 1970s and early '80s. Cammi begged her parents to play hockey instead and finally persuaded them, provided Cammi finished out her figure skating lessons. Granato said the switchover apparently bothered some of the local rink's figure-skater girls, who would call her "weirdo" and at times turn off the lights to the female bathroom with Granato inside. Granato shrugs on screen: "I identified myself as a hockey player… I shut out the noise."
Granato said being the only girl on her age-group's team of boys "wasn't such a big deal as a young girl." It elevated as she and her team improved enough to win a state championship. At first, it "pretty regularly" concerned other Chicago area opposing teams but Granato credits the league's players and coaches "getting used to it."
The harassment intensified as the team traveled to out-of-state tournaments. Granato, 12, was playing on a team with mostly 13-year-olds facing other 13-year-old boys. In Minnesota, Granato's coach, when walking to a water fountain, heard the opposing coach tell his team, "the girl is number 21, let's hit her on the first shift to make her know what's she in for." Granato's coach walked back to his locker room, revealed the pre-game talk and promptly asked Granato and her cousin Bobby to switch jerseys.
"Bobby wasn't the prettiest girl," said Granato, laughing on the Twitter stream. "But it was good to know my cousin and my team had my back. Another coach at a tournament threatened [one of his players would] break my collarbone. My coach asked if I wanted to skip the game. I said, 'no way am I sitting this one out.'"
When Granato reached the 16-and-under class of play, the body checks on the ice were hard and frequent, but what truly floored her was realizing, "oh my gosh, my dream of being an NHL player" (sharing that dream with her brothers) was not feasible. But the gloom didn't last long because, fortuitously women's hockey was becoming a staple of East Coast college sports programs, including Providence College, where she starred for four seasons from 1989 to 1993. Granato regularly drove to and from the Rhode Island school with childhood friend, Ricky Olczyk, who played on nearby Brown University men's hockey player. "Rickey O" is now her boss and NHL Seattle assistant GM.
Granato's on-ice skills, toughness and energy drew the interest of the USA women's national team. She played in eight world championships from 1990 to 2004. Beginning in 1997, she captained the USA squad for six seasons, including winning the historic gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, beating Team Canada, 3-1, in the final. Women's hockey debuted at those Games. Granato earlier in the tournament scored the USA's historic first-ever goal.
"I dreamed about winning," said Granato. "I always thought about celebrating like my brothers and I did in the basement, throwing our sticks and jumping on top of each other in honor of the men's team celebration when they won the gold in 1980 at Lake Placid [upsetting the heavily favored Russians] . We celebrated that at the Olympics, throwing sticks, jump on each other, then skated around with the American flag."
Granato said the team went back to the locker room for a toast, getting called back to the ice for the medal ceremony about 45 minutes after the final buzzer. That's when it sunk in for Granato, all those basement make-believe tournaments and weight-vest squats materializing that little-girl dream into a dreamier reality. When she reached the ice, Granato spotted the tray of "shining gold" realizing her team's Olympic medal were piled high.
"When they put that medal around my neck, the weight and all that emotion hit me at once," she said, "thinking about the work we put in for the dream to come true. I pulled myself together [on the medal stand] the best I could. It was all a big blur, but I remember everything."
There's lots more to watch in the replay (posted at the top of this story) of the informative and entertaining hour that Granato hosted on Twitter as part of the NHL Seattle "Hockey Happy Hour" in which GM Ron Francis debuted two weeks ago. Granato talked in-depth about the USA-Canada rivalry ("I got my first and only hockey stitches against Canada").
Other topics include how today's women's stars credit the 1998 team inspiring them; binging on "Tiger King" with husband-former NHLer-Canadian TV analyst Ray Ferraro ("Ray and I keep telling the kids [two sons] to go back to their electronics so we can finish"); playing sports as a family during quarantine (2-on-2 driveway basketball and "quite intense" basement soccer); her first season as a pro scout for NHL Seattle (Francis and Olczyk both encourage her "don't guess, follow my gut"); whether she takes advice on players from hubby Ray and just why the fire was roaring behind her on a 70-degree day in Vancouver, B.C. with Granato "representing" with a USA hoodie).
The last one? Turns out "Hockey Happy Hour" moderator and sports commentator Ross Fletcher wondered aloud during a rehearsal why these types of talks were being called fireside chats when no flames roared. Granato surprised her off-screen collaborator with her home's fireplace in full flame over her left shoulder. "In all my years of broadcasting," said Fletcher, "this is literally the first fireside chat I have ever conducted."