DENVER -- In addition to the 18,007 in attendance at the Pepsi Center to witness the Boston Bruins defeat the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, players from each side were also quite excited to catch a glimpse of this year's inductees into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame during a short ceremony prior to the opening faceoff.
Cammi Granato, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter were inducted into the U.S. Hall of Fame on Friday during an induction dinner at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver.
"It's a great honor to be at the same building with the players heading into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame," said Bruins forward Blake Wheeler of Robbinsdale, Minn. "I watched all of them growing up, and I idolized them my entire life. I dream about playing with individuals like that out on the ice, and to have them here (at Pepsi Center) a day before they are entering the Hall of Fame is really a cool thing."
Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles of Indianapolis got the chance to play alongside Leetch when he filled in for an injured Hal Gill during the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
"I grew up watching Brian Leetch, and trying to emulate his game and playing in the World Cup with him was just a huge honor for me, especially being on the ice at the same time," Liles said. "All these players have been huge for the success of U.S. Hockey and it's great that they are all being inducted because they are very deserving of the honor."
Avalanche defender Jordan Leopold of Golden Valley, Minn., has skated for the U.S. in two World Junior Championships, three World Championship and the 2006 Olympics.
"It was quite an honor for them I'm sure and a really neat thing for American hockey," Leopold said. "When you look at it, that was a core nucleus that put USA Hockey on the map and you could look to the Miracle on Ice in 1980. But in this era of hockey, I feel all four of the inductees this year pushed hockey to even another level in winning the World Cup in '96 and a silver medal in Salt Lake City. Cammi kind of wrote the book for women's hockey, along with a couple other girls. She really helped bring the game of hockey to girls and women at an elite level and has been a class act her whole life."
Boston forward Phil Kessel of Madison, Wis., was happy to see University of Wisconsin product Mike Richter among the inductees this year.
"I was a big (Wisconsin) Badger fan growing up when I was kid and I would get tickets to all the games, so it was pretty special to see Richter out there," Kessel said.
A big assist -- Hockey fans can thank Ally Cook for resurrecting the career of Brett Hull.
It was 1982 and Hull, who had actually given up on hockey, wasn't in the plans of any major junior team.
"I wasn't that good, to be honest with you," Hull said. "I quit hockey the year before and that's when my buddy, Ally Cook, called the coaches of the team he was playing for in the BCJHL and talked to them on my behalf. He told them I wasn't playing anywhere, that we had played together previously and that I still could play. The club then told me to come out for a tryout and, really, that was the beginning of it because without Ally's help, I wouldn't have had any career at all because I was done."
It was with the Penticton Knights during the 1982-83 campaign when Hull once again found his game and never looked back. He had 48 goals and 56 assists in 50 games his first season and an astounding 105 goals and 188 points in 57 matches in 1983-84. He would play college hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before eventually embarking on an illustrious Olympic and NHL career that spanned more than 20-plus seasons. His 741 career goals rank third all-time in League history.
"It was weird because I never really was a great player and then, all of a sudden, it just clicked and I became this completely different player than I ever was," Hull said. "It's something I understand in my brain, but it's very hard to explain to anyone else."
Badger brothers -- When Mike Richter was enshrined into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Friday at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver, he became the fourth inductee with ties to the University of Wisconsin.
Richter is the first goaltender of that prestigious group, which includes the late coach Bob Johnson and his son, forward Mark Johnson, as well as defenseman Bob Suter. "Badger" Bob Johnson was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 1987, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in '91 and the Hockey Hall of Fame in '92. He led the Badgers to seven NCAA Tournaments and won national titles in 1973, '77 and '81. Both Mark Johnson and Suter were members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won gold in Lake Placid.
"Because of those guys, so many others are now following in their footsteps," Richter said. "'Badger Bob' created a fantastic program (at Wisconsin), and I know his influence on USA Hockey has been incredible. Mark is doing an outstanding job with the women's program at Wisconsin and Suter has been an incredible ambassador for the game. I suppose I'm surprised a bit with the fact there are so few individuals with Wisconsin ties in the U.S. Hall, but there are more to come for sure.
"Chris Chelios (of Wisconsin) is in his prime, in fact," Richter quipped. "In a few more years, I'm sure he'll be inducted."
Richter, a three-time Olympian and the winningest goalie in New York Rangers history, doesn't see the glass as half empty when it comes to dissecting the number of individuals from Wisconsin now sharing a common bond in the Hall.
"When I see guys like Doug Weight (from Michigan) and all those other great American hockey players coming from all different parts of the country, that's what impresses me the most and makes me feel so good," Richter said. "Hockey is being played all over the country and the fact we're producing players and coaches good enough to even be considered for the Hall of Fame is great. I'm glad that the players have been coming from all over the country and not just one section."
Diamond in the rough -- Did you know that in 1986 Brian Leetch set a high school record with 19 strikeouts in one game as a senior at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut?
With a 90-mph fastball at his disposal, it's easy to see why. But Leetch never considered himself a future all-star on the diamond and, instead, followed his dream of becoming a professional hockey player.
"It wasn't ever something that even occurred to me because I knew I wanted to play hockey in college," Leetch said. "Once I was drafted in the first round right before college, I knew I'd have a chance to go to the NHL camps, but I just didn't know where I'd fit in at that point. I just assumed baseball would end, but a few of the teams said that if I wanted to play baseball, I could and still miss a few practices in order to play hockey. I thought about it initially, but knew I wanted to play hockey; I just wanted see how far I could take it. At the time, all signs were pointing toward the 1988 Olympics (in Calgary) because after playing for the Junior National Team, I felt that was a realistic goal."
The 11-time NHL All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman certainly enjoyed his time on the field, however.
"Growing up in Connecticut, one sport never played a huge part in anybody's life," he said. "Never was there a time when kids my age were playing just one sport all year round. I played baseball because my friends played and I also participated in a couple of summer camps. As I got older, high school tournaments were becoming more organized in baseball and hockey, and those remained the two sports I played. The rest of my time was spent going to the pond, going fishing or playing pick-up games with the kids in the neighborhood in just about any sport you could think of. I enjoyed baseball as a pitcher and shortstop, but I don’t really think it had any real effect on my hockey career, except for the fact that when it was time to play hockey again, I always looked forward to it because I missed it."
Deep impact -- Cammi Granato remembers the whispers within the stands and, despite feeling a tad uncomfortable, was out to prove the naysayers wrong.
"There were times it was an issue where at the beginning of the season a parent would say I don't really agree with her being out there on the boys' team," Granato said. "But then I also remember one parent coming up to me and apologizing after a week of watching me play and realizing I could hold my own and just fit right in and that was OK.
"Then there was the time when our coach overheard the other coach say that they were planning to hit the girl wearing No. 21 on the first shift," Granato said. "So my coach came into the locker room and told my cousin, Bob, to wear my jersey. It was a nice way to make light of a situation that could have been nasty and I felt supported so it never bugged me."
It wouldn't hold her back either as Granato would become the most successful women's player in the history of USA Hockey. A 15-year member of the U.S. National Team beginning in 1990, Granato is the program's all-time scoring leader with 343 points in 205 games. She received national attention and made the most of it after captaining the 1998 Olympic Team to a gold medal in Nagano, Japan.
"I noticed a major change in the women's hockey movement the moment we got back from Japan," Granato said. "Our win gave the sport credibility, and it was now OK for little girls to bring their hockey bags into the arena and it was now OK for them to fight for ice time or to be playing what was considered a man’s sport.
"There are dreams for girls to play at a higher level now and there are more collegiate teams, more young women playing at the grass roots level," Granato said. "The only hard thing for our sport right now is that it's not promoted unless you happen to live by a big college that offers women's hockey. There's certainly enough talent, but now we need someone with the same passion these girls show to help back it up."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.