DENVER — Long before they became Olympic legends, Cammi Granato, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter were learning the basics.
Each has his or her own success story, which includes one or more individuals who played a vital role in their development. That training was showcased in grand style on Friday night at the Magness Arena on the campus of the University of Denver when the quartet was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
''With no disrespect to anyone who has previously been inducted to the U.S. Hall of Fame, this is certainly one of the most star-studded classes that we will ever have installed,'' said Dave Ogrean, the executive director to USA Hockey.
Lou Vairo, who helped lead Hull, Leetch, Richter and the rest of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Team to a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City as an assistant to Herb Brooks, was a featured speaker.
"All four of them are exceptional players at each of their positions, and I think it's fantastic that Cammi is the first woman inducted," Vairo said. "She exudes talent and class and is a wonderful person; her whole family is wonderful. Brett Hull is one of the greatest players to ever play the game; it's so hard to break into the top three all-time in goals and he did it. Brian Leetch might go down as the greatest American-born defenseman in history and everybody knows the resume of Mike Richter and what he has done.''
Richter is grateful that Tony Granato, Cammi's older brother, was around to keep him company for some of the early years of his hockey-playing life. Granato, a 13-year NHL veteran and current coach of the Colorado Avalanche, not only helped get Richter into Wisconsin but was his roommate for two seasons. Granato also played with both Richter and Leetch as a member of the New York Rangers.
Internationally, Granato skated for Team USA at the 1988 Olympics with Richter and Leetch and was also teammates with Hull at the 1986 IIHF Men's World Championship and the 1991 Canada Cup.
''Tony Granato was a huge impact for me throughout high school, college and on the Olympic Team and he was an incredibly supportive man and a great competitor," Richter said. "The evolution of USA Hockey has been great to watch. The expectations within the locker room have changed but the one constant is the fact so long as you have confidence as a group, you could achieve anything. I really enjoyed the coaches and players and I always took things very seriously because I wanted to develop and help our team win every tournament."
"Because Mike was three years younger than me, I remember playing against his junior team in Philadelphia and watching this 15-year-old goalie turn away everything we threw at him," Tony Granato said. "When I got to Wisconsin, I mentioned to the staff to make sure they went after this Richter kid — and fortunately he did come to Wisconsin, was my roommate, became my roommate again when we were teammates for the Colorado Rangers and Denver Rangers (of the IHL) and played on Olympic Teams and national teams after that. He's a tremendous friend and for my sister to go in with this class, makes it that much more special for me because I know what those players did for USA Hockey."
Cammi Granato credited Walter Bush, chairman of USA Hockey, and the late Bob Allen. Both played huge roles in the growth of women's ice hockey.
''Of course, my family was vital to my career, but Walter Bush and Bob Allen were huge to the sport and we owe an awful lot to them," Granato said. "Walter really believed in our sport and pushed it with the IIHF and was the man behind getting it into the Olympics so I wouldn't even be here talking to you if it weren't for him.
"Although he's been gone for almost a year, Bob Allen was always our team leader and offered great support. He's a guy who would walk into our locker room and tell you exactly how you played, there was no hiding it. If you stunk, he'd let you know about it — and that was good. He knew me as a kid because he knew Tony (Granato) so when I got older, he kind of took me under his wing and guided me along."
Leetch singled out conditioning coach Jack Blatherwick of the 1988 Olympic men's team.
"There are so many people in USA Hockey who get you for a short amount of time because after playing juniors for three weeks, you move on and there's a different coach waiting for you the next year, but Jack Blatherwick played a big part in my improvement," Leetch said. "We practiced for seven-and-a-half months before the Olympics, and he worked on our skating usually about once or twice a week. We'd have the weight vests and he worked on our conditioning, telling us to go as fast as we could for as long as we could and if you fell, you had to get up.
"In the span from my freshman year in college to turning pro, I came out of that process a much better player — and that propelled me into the NHL," Leetch said. "I was ready to skate and I could elude a lot of the forecheck, get up into the play and I was in good enough shape which really helped my confidence and the results were great. I saw the same skating improvement in my college teammates, Craig Janney and Kevin Stevens, when they turned pro."
Hull, born in Belleville, Ontario, and raised in Chicago, Winnipeg and Vancouver, pointed to coaches Herb Brooks, "Badger" Bob Johnson, and all of his American teammates as having the greatest impact on his career.
"USA Hockey always showed faith in me so the decision to play for the United States was never a difficult one,'' Hull said. "They saw potential, gave me an opportunity to play and find out who Brett Hull was as a player. Once given that chance, I discovered who I was and played the game the only way I knew how. I still remember the booing directed at me (at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey) when we defeated Team Canada, but they only started booing when they realized we were a threat to win — and that was a great feeling.
"People can call me a traitor all they want, but I'd rather be known as that than some Benedict Arnold who took the opportunity Team USA gave me and then, once Canada thought I was good enough, go play for them," said Hull, who holds dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. "That was never going to happen."
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org