"When you think women's hockey, you think Cammi Granato. She's one of the pioneers. The one who opened the doors. So many little girls wanted to be Cammi Granato."
-- Mike Eruzione, captain of 1980 Miracle on Ice team
If Cammi Granato was not the best female hockey player ever, then she was almost certainly the most recognizable.
When women's hockey took to the main stage of the 1998 Olympic games, Granato was fawned over as the sister of NHL role player Tony Granato. By the end of the Olympics everyone recognized Cammi as the best American female player, if not the best in the world.
Cammi was born on March 24, 1971, in Downers Grove, Illinois. She had 4 brothers and a sister. All four boys played hockey. Cammi, the youngest of the clan, was determined to play hockey, too. And she refused to play goalie - the position her brothers wanted her to play.
She began to play hockey at the age of five, though she already had had skating lessons prior to that. She quickly established herself as one of the best players in the community, including boys. In fact she played up until the age of 16 she played on an all boys team.
"I had the same aspirations as my brothers. I wanted to play for the Hawks."
She actually quit hockey for her junior and senior years in high school. The boys grew much bigger than her and full body contact was allowed. She found she was too often a target of the boys and began to suffer injuries. Fearing injuries and undoubtedly social pressures, Granato quit the game she loved.
The next level of hockey was all hitting and I wasn't into that part of the game, so I had to focus on other sports. In the back of my mind, I wanted to go to college and play hockey, but it was tough because I wasn't recruited."
She found success on the girls basketball, soccer, handball and tennis teams. She also continued to play on a boy's baseball team.
But hockey continued to be her true love. In 1989 she got her big break and back onto the ice.
Providence College offered Cammi a full hockey scholarship, one of the few schools in the country that recruited top women's hockey players. No doubt the school was well aware of her athletic accomplishments on and off the ice, but at this stage you had to wonder how much of this move was a publicity stunt. After all, her brother Tony just completed his first year in the NHL and was in the Olympics before that.
Regardless, Cammi immediately succeeded. She was freshman player of the year, and later was named Women's Hockey Player of the Year in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. The co-captain of the Frairs led her team to league titles in 1992 and 1993. In 93 career college games she scored 135 and 110 assists. She graduated 1993 with a degree in social sciences.
While in college Granato was happy to play a pioneer's role in women's international play. She was one of the founding members of the U.S. Women's national team, which won silver in the inaugural women's world championships in 1990. From that moment on she was a regular on Team USA.
In those early days the national team only got together at certain times of the year. Without any NCAA eligibility remaining, Granato was forced to move to Canada to find opportunities to continue playing. She enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal, earning her master's degree in sports administration. She also helped a strong Concordia team win three consecutive Quebec championships. In 123 games she collected an amazing 178 goals and 148 assists.
Her graduation from Concordia in 1997 was perfectly timed. It was announced that women's hockey would be an official Olympic sport in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. She was able to train with the national team and emerged as the leader. She was named team captain and led Team USA to an upset gold medal victory over Team Canada.
After the win, Granato could not help but feel vindicated for years of dedication, but also criticism.
"For so many years, people told me that you weren't supposed to be on the ice. Whey are you doing this? You're not going to go anywhere with this. And now I have this gold medal around my neck, and it feels pretty good."
She also earned another fantastic honour - she was asked to carry the U.S. flay at the Olympics closing ceremonies.
Naturally the Olympic success led to great exposure for Granato. She had endorsement deals from several companies including Nike, CBS and AT&T. She became a radio broadcaster for the Los Angeles Kings and was even offered to attend the New York Islanders training camp.
Granato used her new found celebrity to help further the game of women's hockey in the United States. She conducted clinics across the country and worked tirelessly to get more girls and women interested in the sport.
She never did go to the Islanders camp, and she dropped the Kings broadcasting job after one season because she wanted to continue playing and training with the US national team.
In 2002, Granato returned to the Olympics, again as team captain of Team USA. This time around USA lost a heartbreaker in a classic hockey grudge match, losing to Canada, 3-2. After the Olympics, she planned on playing for the Vancouver Griffins of the National Women's Hockey League in 2002-03, and hoped to play in the 2006 Winter games.
Everyone who described Cammi was always quick to mention her leadership abilities. She wasn't the strongest skater or the best shooter, but she was a natural leader.
Chris Chelios, the NHL star and American Olympian, got to witness that first hand in 1998.
"Man or woman, Cammi Granato is one of the most impressive hockey leaders I've ever come across."
Yet somehow that leadership ability was controversially overlooked in 2006. Granato was vying for her third Olympic games. Even though she was a veteran and her best days may have been behind her, it was a shock when U.S. national team head coach Ben Smith cut her from the team.
"Like all players, if they choose to try to play forever, their number's liable to come up," he said.
Her Olympic dream and her international hockey career came to an abrupt end.
No doubt it was a tough call. Canada had gone through that back in 1998 when they cut Angela James. The debate was the same - do you keep your pioneer and leader even though there are more talented and younger players ready to take their place?
Granato's former teammate Sue Merz thought there was no debate at all as to what should have been done.
"What kind of example does Ben Smith give to the younger girls on the team? If Cammi is treated this way, what does this mean for me in the future?"
Granato wanted one last shot at glory, to go out on top. She never got that chance.
"[I feel] an overwhelming sadness. I'm not an angry person. I have a big, loving family and a roster full of former teammates that I love and respect," Granato said. "But I'm so heartbroken right now. I could never fathom this is how my hockey career would end.
"My only focus was the Olympics because in my sport, that is the ultimate. Everything is geared toward that, and my entire life was geared around getting there and winning gold."
She stepped out as international hockey's all time leading women's scorer. In official events, Granato played 54 games, scoring 54 goals and 96 points. She won 1 Olympic gold and 1 silver, as well as 1 World Championship gold and 8 silver.
She was honoured with the NHL’s Lester Patrick Award in 2007 for outstanding service to hockey in the U.S. She was then inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation's Hall of Fame in 2008. And in 2010 she joined Angela James as the first women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame