Commentary

Granato creates dream for others

Updated: November 4, 2010, 9:46 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Cammi Granato was strolling down a California beach this past June with 10-month-old son Reese when her phone rang.

Seeing the Toronto area code on her phone display stopped her in her tracks.

"I saw the 416 number come in, and my heart kind of skipped a beat," Granato told ESPN.com last week.

She figured it was the Hockey Hall of Fame calling. She guessed correctly.

"I was so nervous, I didn't hear anything other than, 'Congratulations, you've been inducted.' I was almost speechless," she said.

[+] EnlargeCammi Granato
Bruce Bennett Studio/Getty ImagesCammi Granato and Team USA upset Canada to win the first women's gold at the 1998 Nagano Games.

It wasn't a total shock. Her name was a popular bet to be among the first class inducted into the new women's player category in the Hall.

"People had been talking about it," Granato said. "You're silently hoping, but you don't want to admit how much you're really hoping. You try to play it cool. But when I got the call, I started shaking and I got super emotional."

The timing could not have been better that June day. The Granato clan had gathered in a beach house for a family vacation. There were about 20 of them on hand, including brother Tony Granato, a former NHL forward who is now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It was very special to all be there," Tony said. "We had a nice celebration as a family."

He had seen Cammi answer her phone and decided to walk over to her on the beach. When he connected the dots, he gave her a thumbs-up while she was still on the phone. Then came the hug after she hung up.

"He was crying and I was crying. It was quite cool," Cammi said.

Cammi Granato and former Canadian superstar Angela James will be the first two players inducted into the women's category Monday night at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Getting into the Hall is an honor for any player, but the historical meaning of Monday night's event is not lost on Granato.

"It blows me away; it really does," Granato said. "There are a lot of firsts in women's hockey and women's sports in general. But this one, it was unfathomable. It was something I always thought unattainable. You dream about playing in the Olympics, but you don't really think there's ever a place reserved for you at the Hall. It's reserved for legends and untouchable athletes. The historical part of being the first woman, it's a huge, huge honor. It's awesome."

For brother Tony, the achievement makes him relive what Cammi went through to get there.

"It makes me think back to when we were kids, what the game meant to her, what she had to do just to play the game," he said. "Because hockey for girls back then was not a normal thing or an accepted thing like it is today. You look back at the days when she carried her bag into the rink and people said, 'What the heck? Is a girl carrying a hockey bag into a hockey rink?' To look back at what she went through, it makes you understand what makes her tick."

Cammi Granato's selection was a no-brainer. She is USA Hockey's biggest star in the women's game.

"She was probably the smartest player ever to play the game," former Canadian star Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Granato's longtime rival-turned-friend, told ESPN.com. "She always knew where to be and how to get to areas. She made the game effortless. She made it look easy even though you knew how much work she put into it. I think what she's done for the game, especially in the United States, I don't know if that's been duplicated up here really. She was the Lone Ranger for so long down there, doing everything for USA Hockey."

It was unfathomable. It was something I always thought unattainable. You dream about playing in the Olympics, but you don't really think there's ever a place reserved for you at the Hall. It's reserved for legends and untouchable athletes.

-- Cammi Granato

The impact the first women's inductions will have on hockey-playing girls around the world also cannot be ignored. It's something else to aspire to now.

Shortly after the Hall announcement, Granato ran into a girl at a hockey rink.

"She came over with her mom, and her mother said, 'My daughter actually wants to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, too. That's her goal.' And I thought that was really cool now that these girls can have another thing they can aspire to. It was neat to hear," Granato said.

When Granato was a girl, there were hardly any other girls to play hockey with. The fifth-youngest of six children (four brothers and one sister), Granato grew up just outside Chicago, playing on boys' teams until she was 16. Perhaps other people thought it was strange for a girl to be playing on boys' hockey teams, but not anyone in the Granato family.

"I was wondering why other guys' sisters weren't playing more than I was wondering why she was playing," Tony Granato said.

Like any hockey-crazy boy from the Chicago area, Cammi Granato grew up dreaming of playing for the Blackhawks. It didn't don on her until later in her childhood that as a girl, that wasn't an attainable dream. And she remembers how crushed she was when she realized that.

"I was heartbroken when I found out I wasn't going to the NHL and that my brothers had that possibility of trying to at least," Granato said.

College hockey would have to suffice for the time being. Granato got a hockey scholarship from Providence College, and led the school to league titles in 1992 and '93. It also was during this time that Granato became a member of the new women's national team, helping the U.S. to a silver medal at the first women's world championship in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1990.

Then came a development that forever changed the face of women's hockey: the Olympics. Making its debut in 1998 at Nagano, Japan, women's hockey was instantly legitimized. Having Team USA upset favored Canada for the first women's gold, well, that was as good as it got for the sport in the U.S.

"It was so big," Granato said. "It was just a special, special group of girls. We had the right mix. We weren't favored but we used our team chemistry to get us over the hump. Remember, we hadn't beat Canada prior at any world championships. Psychologically it was like, 'Can we beat this team?'"

They sure did.

"When we were young, we'd be playing in the basement and we'd yell out, 'Do you believe in miracles?' and pile on each other," Granato, who had eight points (four goals-four assists) in six games in Nagano, said referring to the 1980 Miracle team. "Having that actually happen after [I] re-enacted it as a kid, it was so incredible. That moment for me was the pinnacle in my career."

For the sport, it was the best possible outcome.

"Looking back at it now, you think it's probably the best thing that could have happened for women's hockey because it brought such a huge exposure for the game south of the border," Campbell-Pascall said of her Canadian squad losing that day in the gold-medal game. "It got more media attention."

Granato said the impact back home was night and day.

"I just noticed a major, major change in the States after we won," she said. "We had no idea people were even watching us. We were halfway around the world. Nobody knew women even played hockey before that tournament. By the second week of the Olympics, we had hundreds and hundreds of e-mails coming in, and we were like, 'Wow, people are actually watching.' When we got home, it was an onslaught of media attention, and we were so thrown by it because we had been so nonexistent before. That win had a huge impact. It was pretty incredible."

It was a launching pad for girls all over the country picking up the game.

"The biggest change for me that I noticed was that from that point on, you could walk into a rink and feel like you belonged," Granato said. "When a girl was carrying a hockey bag, it wasn't because she was carrying her brother's. She was carrying her own. It just gave the sport so much credibility. There was a major change from the day before the Nagano Olympics to the day after."

Campbell-Pascall and Team Canada got their revenge on U.S. soil in 2002 in Salt Lake City, beating the U.S. in the gold-medal game. But the real heartbreak was still a few years away for Granato. Her stunning exclusion from the 2006 U.S. women's Olympic team was a bombshell news story.

Campbell-Pascall remembers being at camp with her Canadian squad when the news filtered out.

"I think everyone was in shock. We were like, 'They really did that?'" Campbell-Pascall said.

No one was more stunned than Granato herself.

"For me it was a total shock," she said. "Just the way it went down, first of all; it was all handled so poorly. It was a slap in the face to everything I had given to the game. Secondly, I had never trained so hard. I had never been so ready. I was just so geared up. And then you're told you're done. I was really bitter. I'm still having trouble dealing with it."

Or more precisely, dealing with then-coach Ben Smith, who made the decision.

"Just the way they did it," Campbell-Pascall said. "They brought her for a summer camp for a week and then cut her. I thought it was disrespectful. To me, it showed the lack of class a guy like Ben Smith had. It was just the wrong choice."

At the time, Smith said his decision was just based on what was best for the team.

"To leave kids like Cammi and Shelley [Looney] behind was not a pleasant part of what I do," Smith told the New York Daily News in 2005. "Obviously it was an emotional situation from a personal standpoint, [but] being emotional and sentimental is not always what you are trying to focus on when you are putting your team together. You always have to be concerned with the greater good of the team."

The U.S. ended up being upset by Sweden in the semifinals in Torino, Italy.

"She should have been on that team," said Campbell-Pascall, who won gold again with Canada in 2006. "I don't think it's ironic that they ended up with the bronze medal. They totally missed her leadership and they missed her on the power play."

The controversial decision smelled of politics. Granato, before being cut, challenged Smith and others at USA Hockey in her efforts to improve things for the women's team in the program.

"I had always looked out for the team," Granato said. "It was really hard to deal with because it was really unjust. I still sometimes dream about trying to get out there [for the 2006 Olympics]. I never really left like I wanted to. But the nice part is that he couldn't take the game away from me. The game is still very alive in me."

Smith wasn't immediately available for comment.

Hockey is king in her household. She now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with husband Ray Ferraro, a former NHL star and TV hockey analyst, as well as their two little ones, Riley (almost 4 years old) and Reese.

The irony is not lost on Granato that after all those years of battling Canada in international hockey, she now calls it home.

"It's neat it's all worked out this way," she said. "Hockey in Canada is the first love. It's so wonderful to live it and see everyone embrace the sport. I've really enjoyed that. It's fun to watch my kids get influenced from both my husband and I on the U.S.-Canada thing. It's fun."

As for the way her star-studded career bitterly ended in 2006, her Hockey Hall of Fame induction has helped in the healing.

"Absolutely it does, no question," Granato said. "Because instead of focusing on the way it ended for me, this unbelievable accolade now that I had no idea would come my way, it's let me relive all the great parts of the game and all the great memories that I have and focus on what the game has given me.

"That definitely has eased a lot of that pain and bitterness."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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