Granato still growing the game
by Lucas Aykroyd|02 OCT 2019
Cammi Granato waits to award the best players at the 2009 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in the United States.
photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
The last time Cammi Granato represented the U.S. internationally was a 1-0 shootout win over archrival Canada on 9 April 2005. It gave the Americans their first IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medal ever.

More than 14 years later, the all-time leading scorer in U.S. national team history remains determined to give back to her sport. That’s noteworthy, given that her place in American sports lore is already secure after captaining the team that won the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Nagano, Japan in 1998.

Many players on today’s Team USA grew up idolizing Granato, but her old rivals have also been quick to give her the credit she deserves. The two-time Olympian retired in 2005 with an impressive 18 points in 11 career Olympic games and 78 points in 43 career Women’s Worlds games.

“She was always a dominant player,” said Canadian blueliner Geraldine Heaney, who joined Granato and Angela James in the first group of women inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame (2008). “She was very deceptive. Sometimes you wouldn’t notice her, and then all of a sudden she was there. She really knew how to put the puck in the net. She knew the game well, and she was a great athlete.”

Recently, Granato, 48, has expressed her support for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), which is vying to create a sustainable pro women’s hockey league in North America. To showcase its talent as part of a continent-wide tour this fall, the PWHPA is staging four exhibition games from 18 to 20 October at the Fifth Third Arena in Chicago, and Granato is returning to her hometown as a guest coach. The Team Granato roster will feature 2018 Olympic gold medalists like Kendall Coyne Schofield, Amanda Kessel, and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson.

On the eve of Granato’s first hockey camp for girls in more than 10 years, caught up with her in North Vancouver, where she resides with her husband, former NHLer and TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, and their young sons Riley and Reese.

After this interview, the Seattle franchise that will debut in 2021/22 announced her hiring in September as the NHL's first female pro scout.

What’s your philosophy with this hockey camp here in Vancouver?

Obviously we want to cover individual skills, because it’s really important if you want to play hockey at any level to have your basic skills. So we do individual skill work with a team component. Maybe the second session, they can do some small games and have some fun.

But we also work on letting each player understand that they all have something special inside them, that they all are able to dream. It doesn’t matter what level, it doesn’t matter what dream. Just find your passion. It’s building empowerment for that person and making them feel like they belong and are important. And then the team part of it. It’s the energy of, “We’re all together. We’re powerful together. So let’s be good to each other and let’s encourage each other.” So there is a team-building empowerment session built into every day for an hour. It’s a lot of fun for the girls, I think. You don’t normally see that in a lot of camps.

We’re doing an off-ice component as well, which’ll be some fun. So the kids will be probably tired and happy by the time they get home, but the overall feel of the camp is just really positive and high-energy. It can be for any level.

Any guilty feelings for you about potentially training the next generation of Canadian gold medalists? 

[laughs] I think we are all in it together. Sure, when a tournament starts, you go with your country that you’re cheering for. And of course, for me, it’s the U.S. But as far as the whole aspect of growing the game, we’re all in it together. Absolutely. There’s no barriers there. I did feel when I first moved to Canada, I would have done a lot more work probably if I was in the States, because I was revered as a U.S. athlete. Here, I was looked at as the enemy, right? So it took a long time for that to sort of fade.

Now the years have passed and it’s not an issue. Canada won some more medals after that. When we won the [1998] gold, honestly, going through the border, it was like, I’d get razzed by the guys at the border: “Oh, you beat us!” Once Canada won a bunch more gold medals, it seemed to settle a bit. It was like, “OK, we got ours.”

At this point, hockey in B.C. for women isn’t very big. It’s nowhere near what it is in Ontario, or even in other provinces. It needs to grow.
Cammi Granato (in the middle) celebrates with the trophy with Angela Ruggiero and Jenny Potter after winning the first IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship for the United States in 2005. It was her last competitive hockey game.
photo: Soren Andersson / Bildbyran
When it comes to growing the women’s game overall, what do you see as the key? 

The young girls need to be able to see the heroes they look up to, the players they like to watch. That was the biggest thing for me. We won the gold medal in 1998, and we never played a single game in the U.S. after that for I don’t know how many years. The games we played were in Lake Placid, New York. A few thousand people live there. If you look at where we played after ‘98, I was just thinking: “All these girls that showed up for my camp, they can never see us locally.” Because we weren’t televised at that time in the U.S. So where are they going to see us? It’s going to fade.

Actually, the biggest outlet at that time was the USA Hockey magazine that came out in the rinks. Now, if girls want to follow what Hilary Knight’s doing today, they can look at their heroes online and find out what they had for breakfast. It’s so cool.

Speaking of Hilary, she has 43 career Women’s Worlds goals, one shy of your all-time tournament record of 44. How do you feel about the strong likelihood that she’ll set a new record at the 2020 Women’s Worlds in Halifax?

Hey, it’s very fitting that it’s Hilary. It’s very fitting. And it’s going to happen at some point, so I’m glad that it’s her. Really, from the bottom of my heart. The story is very neat. She came to my camp. She wore my number because of me. We had interaction. So I’m very happy for her.

During its current streak with Olympic gold in PyeongChang and five straight Women’s Worlds gold medals, Team USA has used multiple head coaches: Katey Stone, Ken Klee, Robb Stauber, and Bob Corkum. What are your thoughts on how the team has delivered such consistent results despite the changes behind the bench?

Sometimes it’s refreshing to get new coaching. I know for us, we had the same forever. You get new perspective and new energy. This team is just wildly skilled. Their speed, out of anybody’s, really stands out. And they’re deep.

The coaching, of course, has an impact on the game. I feel like sometimes the negative impact can be worse than anything. What I mean is, if these guys are giving them the freedom to play and that confidence, then they’re good. It’s the negative side where you’re taking away their speed or creativity by trying to manipulate and overcoach. That’s where I think you lose that. You want to trust your players.

What did you think of the saga of the Unified Korean women’s team at last year’s Olympics?

Honestly, from being a part of the Olympics, what is remarkable is how every Olympics, for those two weeks, you’re able to put the politics aside. It does. It goes to the side. And that was a major example. It was amazing to watch the fans and the cheering.

Nobody knew how it would go down. It was remarkable. It was very cool. It’s very Olympic. That’s what the Olympics embody, and that’s what’s beautiful about the Olympics. Countries all come together in peace for two weeks, and the world can celebrate sport. The human side of it comes out as well. There are so many stories that I’ve come across in my Olympic experience that exemplify that. And that was one of them.
Cammi Granato during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games on home ice in Salt Lake City.
photo: IIHF Archive
Let’s rewind a bit. You played for Western Canada’s first professional women’s hockey team, the Vancouver Griffins, in the original National Women’s Hockey League in 2002/03. What was that experience like day-in and day-out?

Firstly, it was important to me that I was able to continue playing at a competitive level, to keep myself ready for the Olympics, to keep training so I could play on the national team. The Griffins would, say, fly to Calgary, and then we’d do four in a room, two in a bed. You’re in motels. You played three games against the same team in a weekend, because of the travel budget, right? You didn’t want to fly too much.

You’d show up for practice at a small rink in Vancouver. It wasn’t promoted for crowds or anything. There were competitive games, but it wasn’t really like what people would consider a pro league. It was just maybe more of a place to play to keep yourself competitive. And also for young kids to play, looking for college scholarships. Because we did have some younger pre-college kids as well. 

My last couple of years [2004-05], it turned into the B.C. Breakers. I would literally skate up the ice and I’d let go of the puck. The skill level wasn’t there for me to play. It was way more disappointing to play then. There were some great teammates, but it was just different as far as the quality.

With the Griffins, you became a teammate of Canada’s Nancy Drolet. What did that feel like, considering she’d broken your heart with the overtime winner at both the 1997 and 2000 Women’s Worlds?

It was fine. It’s actually kind of fun when you land on a team with a player that you’ve played against for so many years. You have this sort of idea of them as your archrival. Then you end up in the locker room with them and you start to get to know them as a person and it changes. So it was fun to get to know her and actually be on the ice with her and see how she played. And that happens a lot nowadays, where you’re getting the Canadians and Americans starting to play on other teams together and then they really get to know each other at a different level.

Women’s sports are in growth mode worldwide. How would you compare what’s going on right now to the wave of interest in the late 1990s?

Well, back then, you had a big slew of gold medal wins. That was why. In the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. women’s soccer team and softball team won. Then we won in 1998, and the women’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1999. There was this momentum. Women’s teams were winning gold medals for our country. That’s really where it was at. We felt that momentum. It was tennis, too. The Williams sisters were dominating. It was cool.

But again, you’ve got to look at the times. Social media can do everything for exposure. Back then, you could have the momentum, but then it kind of died down. Now, the exposure is always there. You can reach any audience you want with any clip anywhere in the world. So it’s different. Now the momentum is back, and I think it’s going to stay. 

What was your reaction to the controversy over the way the U.S. women’s national soccer team celebrated during their 13-0 win over Thailand at the FIFA Women’s World Cup?

I look at it this way: I’m in front of a packed building and I got a hat trick. Or I got another goal and I’m making history. Was that what they were caught up in? I know for our teams in general, when we were up on teams later in games, you didn’t cheer as much. But, different personalities.

These girls were brash and fierce and strong. And what’s wrong with that? Because when the guys do it, nobody says anything. When you’ve got a brash team that’s telling the crowd to do whatever, you just don’t hear that it’s negative. You don’t. You just say: “That guy is spirited.” Why is it different for the genders? I don’t know. Different makeup, too.

They have such great voices coming out of that soccer team that are helping the women’s movement in general. Politically, they’re getting involved. It’s a special team that way. I think that’s their identity. They had a lot of people that just didn’t want to cheer for them. I know here in Canada, people were talking about it: “What’s going on with your American team?” I’m kind of defending them and trying to see perspectives and saying there’s two sides to it. I do support the movement that they’re trying to grow, supporting women in sport and women’s empowerment.
Cammi Granato (with Walter Bush and René Fasel) was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2008.
photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
In recent years, we’ve seen high-profile negotiations between national women’s hockey teams and their federations everywhere from the U.S. to Sweden. What’s your perspective on this push for more equitable working conditions?

This is not an overnight problem. We’ve been fighting for things like this for a long time. It’s just that now with social media behind you and people understanding what’s going on, there’s a leverage where these governing bodies, these organizations, they have to listen, right? Because there’s accountability. They’re in the press. Where before, there was no one listening. So we were on our own island, trying to fight something like a mountain in front of us, and we had to just stop.

But these girls have momentum and through that, they can have that strength with each other. They’re established enough where they all know each other and can stand united. I think we saw that in 2017. It was amazing, amazing. Now you’re seeing that more on the global perspective, trying to get a league.

Last season, American NHL stars Phil Kessel and Johnny Gaudreau both played 82 games and totalled just 12 hits apiece. Does the reduced hitting in men’s hockey make it easier to sell the women’s game to the modern fan?

There’s this myth that people care about fighting in the NHL. People all watch the playoffs, and there’s barely any fights. It’s the same sort of thing with hitting. In the women’s game, it’s physical. There’s body contact. But also, because bodychecking is not in the game, there is a free-for-all element.

It’s like watching overtime in men’s hockey, where the game moves north-south. It’s a flow. You see that in women’s hockey. Because there’s no hitting, there’s a flow. You see the fundamentals and you see the beauty of what the game is, because it’s not being held up as much. And it’s very exciting.

In your opinion, if the PWHPA succeeds with its vision, what will that league look like?

I think it would have to start like an Original Six again. I don’t think you can go more teams than that to start. You want it to be a really premier, top league. With the NHL involved, of course, that would be the best way, because there was a model like the WNBA that made sense. Maybe smaller venues, or figuring out how you would pair it in the bigger venues. You have to have the right plan in place. But I do think the NHL being involved is necessary for it to succeed. You need some financial backing or some things that are already built in place, with a model of being successful.