- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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Listening to the four members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame's Class of 2008 on a conference call Tuesday, something came across loud and clear. Keeping in mind some of the background stories that involve shared experiences, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter obviously were honored to be chosen for induction, but it was extra special to be entering the Hall together and along with women's hockey pioneer Cammi Granato.
To varying degrees, the three men know Granato's brother Tony, their former teammate at various junctures and the current coach of the Colorado Avalanche, and they have an inkling of what she went through at the leading edge of the women's game in the United States.
"I remember being at the Calgary Olympics in '88," Cammi said Tuesday. "I was watching Mike, Brian and my brother, and I was saying to my mom as we went to the opening ceremonies, 'I want to be an Olympian, and I want to represent the USA, and how can I do it?' There was no women's hockey, and I'm a 15-year-old kid thinking I can conquer the world."
She said she asked her mother, Natalie, "Can I play for the men's team?"
By then, she already had been fighting -- and winning -- some battles to just be allowed to hone her game.
"It's special for me because I remember her playing hockey with all the boys," Tony said. "I remember her changing her name to Carl to play in a tournament because girls weren't allowed to play. I saw her putting her ponytail under her helmet so nobody would know she was a girl. I saw all that. There's someone who plays hockey for the love of the game.
"And it's not just Cammi, but all the girls who played in the first Olympics and world championships. They didn't play for any other reason except they loved the game. What they did for the women's game and women's sports, you can't take your hat off enough.
"They didn't listen to, 'No, you can't do this.' Cammi's answer always was, 'Why not?' When she was a little girl, she said, 'I'm going to play for the Blackhawks.' 'What do you mean, you're going to play for the Blackhawks?' 'Well, why not?'
"She heard, 'You can't play in the tournament.' She said, 'Well, why not? I'm a good player.' So all along, that's the way it was. She taught me a lot about the fire inside, the drive to motivate yourself."
Cammi ended up playing in the women's program at Providence College, a Dominican-run university that was ahead of its time. She was the Providence captain and a standout on the women's national team, leading the Americans to the gold medal at Nagano in 1998 in the first-ever women's Olympic competition. Unfortunately, some of the politics in the Ben Smith-run fiefdom got her cut from the U.S. national team prematurely, before she could compete at the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, but she remains the face of the women's game in the U.S.
On Tuesday, she recalled "going into that locker room and sharing so many of those same stories with all those girls who played, growing up, with boys. People told them they shouldn't play, that we should quit, it's a man's sport. We all had the same exact stories."
Granato is more than qualified for induction on her own merits, but this is also about what she represents. Women's hockey isn't huge, and let's be honest, some of the North American game's biggest advocates have nothing but disdain for the women's version because of the lack of hitting and other issues. But as you look around the U.S. and note the increased competition opportunities for girls and women on every level -- including in scholarship NCAA programs that help meet the Title IX obligations and, in some cases, are very popular -- Granato has a hand in that. And she remains the women's game most prominent ambassador, even if she is retired from competitive hockey and living in Vancouver with her husband, former NHL player Ray Ferraro, and their infant son, Riley. (Just one question: If Riley becomes a great hockey player, whom does he play for in international competition?)
"The biggest change for hockey I noticed was when we returned from Nagano in '98, because all of a sudden our sport had credibility," Cammi said. "If we carried a hockey bag into the arena, people didn't look at us funny, and there was now a respect to our sport. It's been growing steadily since then."
Hull, Richter and Leetch's NHL careers are well-documented, including the latter two's importance in the New York Rangers' historic 1994 Stanley Cup victory. Hull and Leetch are among the elite of all time; Richter might have gotten there if his career hadn't been cut short. But all three of them were on the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup, beating Canada in a best-of-three final.
"There were a lot of proud guys in that locker room," Leetch said. "And when I look back on it, I still have that same feeling about that team and that time."
Richter said that he still can remember when that '96 World Cup team assembled, "and it was instantly hilarious … That team was so much fun to be on the ice with."
During that tournament, Hull was the object of booing -- some good-natured, some bitterly ignorant -- at the Canadian sites because he had cast his lot with USA Hockey when he was asked to be part of the World Championship team in 1986. On Tuesday, he was asked whether his selection to the U.S. Hall of Fame was confirmation that he had made a wise choice signing on with USA Hockey at a time when -- despite his famous last name and genes -- he wasn't considered a future star.
"USA Hockey showed faith, they saw a young kid and his ability, which isn't always easy to do," Hull said. "Especially now that I'm a GM in the NHL, to just look and see potential is a difficult thing to see. They saw it, and they gave me an opportunity to play and to find out who Brett Hull was as a player, and if he could develop, and if I could ever be an NHL player. Confirmation? That never was really needed … Just having them show the faith in me, that they wanted me part of the program, was all I needed. I've never forgot that, and I never will.
"There was a lot of booing. But you know what the greatest part of that was? They never once said anything, they never booed, until we became that team that was able to beat Canada. And when they got scared of us as a group, playing against us, that's when they started. That was a great feeling because we knew that we were a great team, and I think the rest of the guys realized they were booing because they were afraid of us. That really made me feel good, and I think deep down it made the other guys feel good, as well."
Many of us -- my hand is up -- envisioned that 1996 World Cup victory as something at least worthy of mention in the same paragraph as the Miracle on Ice, in the sense that it could be a springboard and a means of generating more across-the-board hockey interest in the U.S. It did that, but only to a minor degree. Yet because of the accomplishments of this class and so many other U.S. players, on the NCAA, NHL and international levels, Hull is helping run a franchise in a market where youth hockey has exploded and there are so many StarCenter rinks, you easily can end up at the wrong one for the youth tournament. All these men -- and the woman -- have played a role in that.
The only unfortunate aspect of the announcement of the 2008 class is that it underscored that under current rules, which don't allow for additional or separate choices in something along the lines of the Hockey Hall of Fame's "builder" category, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for nonplayers to make the cut for induction. Many deserving players are backlogged now, such as goaltender Tom Barrasso, and others will become eligible in the next few years. That likely will shut out many deserving choices from beyond the ranks of the relatively contemporary former players. One example: Longtime USA hockey administrator Art Berglund, who already is in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Hall of Fame.
But this class, with all its intersecting story lines, will be hard to beat on a lot of levels.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of just-released "'77" and of "Third Down and a War to Go."