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Granato wears pioneer status well

by Dan Rosen

Cammi Granato became the face of women's hockey in the U.S. after leading the Americans to gold in the Olympics.
NEW YORK -- Ten years before she became the first women’s ice hockey player in the world to wear an Olympic gold medal, Cammi Granato was a 17-year-old high school kid tugging on her mom’s jacket.

There she was, sitting with thousands of other people in Calgary watching the opening ceremonies of the 15th Olympic Games, in awe of what would eventually become the brightest line on her stunning hockey resume.

“Mom, I have to be in the Olympics,” Granato recalls saying to her mother, Natalie, back in 1988. “I was getting the experience because my brother (Tony) was there, and it was just a huge impact, the whole magic of the Olympics.”

Tony Granato, now an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche, was a member of the USA men’s hockey team in Calgary, but there was no USA women’s team because there was no Olympic women’s hockey.

Cammi, though, never doubted she’d find a way to the show.

After all, pioneers are only pioneers if they reach the top.

No one has soared higher in women’s hockey than Granato, the ice queen not just in the United States, but across the globe.

That same girl who was once bundled up in Calgary, who once dreamed of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, was recognized Monday for her service to hockey in her own country with the Lester Patrick Award.

“When I look at the past winners and see the company I’m in, it just blows me away,” Granato said. “Also, to be recognized as an equal amongst men after fighting so many years to prove we weren’t just girls playing hockey, we were hockey players, that is pretty satisfying.”

Granato’s ascension to hockey royalty began in 1990 when she first joined the national team after making the cut during a one-day tryout at Northeastern University.

“We had to buy our sweats. We had to find someone to sponsor us with bags,” Granato said. “I think we got a USA hockey jacket, which was very exciting.”

It wasn’t long after that Cammi started to realize there was room in the Olympics for one more Granato. The International Ice Hockey Federation began sanctioning world championships in 1990, starting with the first tournament in Ottawa.

That was the sign Granato and her teammates had broken down their first barrier.

Eight years later, after the U.S. played second fiddle to Canada four times at the World Championships, women’s ice hockey made its debut at the Olympics and Granato got to experience the opening ceremonies from the ground floor.

“I just remember walking through the tunnel of the opening ceremonies thinking; ‘We have made it,’ ” she said. “I was an official Olympic athlete. You have that forever.”

Granato later captained the Americans to a 3-1 victory over Canada in the gold medal game. And, when the Games closed on Feb. 22, it was Granato carrying the flag into the closing ceremonies for the entire USA Olympic team.

That flag and her gold medal are now on display in the basement in her Vancouver home.

“To be honest, we have some pretty neat stuff hanging there and when people see that Olympic torch, that’s the thing. They can’t believe it,” said Granato’s husband, former NHL player Ray Ferraro. “I think it’s the most remarkable thing that Cammi’s impact in women’s hockey and women’s athletics went to the level that she would be included in something like that.”

With that honor, though, comes responsibility.

Of all 20 members of that championship team, Granato was the one who gave a global face to women’s hockey, and she’s kept up her legacy by helping grow the game at the youth level, including her annual summer hockey camp in Illinois.

“When we won the gold medal I thought there was no doubt we had to give back to the game because when I was younger we looked up to the men’s players,” Granato said. “I thought now we’re in this position so we have to give back to the young girls. Now they had athletes to look up to.”

Granato celebrates with her gold medal after defeating Team Canada to win the IIHF World Women's Championships gold medal on April 9, 2005 in Linkoping, Sweden.

Granato, now a mother of 10-month old Riley, said she plans to eventually get into coaching. When asked if she thought there would ever be a female coach in the NHL, Granato wouldn’t rule out that either.

“You can never say never,” was her response. “I’d like to see women be able to scout. I know how to pick out a good player as well as anyone else. There’s always a first for everything. Look at Hilary (Clinton). Barriers are being broken all over.”

Granato grew up never having to wonder about her place at the proverbial hockey table. She was the youngest sister to three hockey-playing brothers in Downers Grove, Ill., but she was never the little girl getting in the way of their game.

She got right in there with Tony, Don and Robbie, mucking it up just like one of the guys. With no local women’s team to play for, Granato instead joined the Downers Grove Huskies and played with the boys from kindergarten through high school.

“For the first seven years we had a field across the street that they would freeze over and that was our winter playground,” she said. “I remember the headlights would be out when it got dark so we could get in an extra game. We would wear our skate guards when we went in for dinner.

“When we moved we were devastated, so my parents let us convert our basement into a little hockey rink. There were some intense games down there.”

The Granato kids had only one rule.

“You don’t tell mom or dad, or you don’t play,” Cammi recalled.

Playing with her brothers made her tougher, and playing competitively against boys made her smarter.

“I never knew I was any different than the boys,” she said. “The only time I knew is when people started pointing it out to me.”

When it was finally time for her to play the women’s game as a scholarship player at Providence College, Granato said adapting to the minimal-checking rules was difficult.

“My first game I got three penalties,” said Granato, who still holds the record for career goals (139) and career points (256). “There was a bit of an adjustment, but when I went to Providence that was the first time I played with only women and I loved it. I always had to come in later after the guys got dressed. Now I just fit in.”

Fast forward to Monday, and nothing was different. Surrounded by some of the greatest men ever associated with the game, hockey’s leading lady fit right in.


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