Cammi Granato is a skater, but she doesn't wear sequins--or take a backseat in hockey to U.S. men

by Michael Farber
photographs by David E. Klutho

Cammi Granato wrote it all down in her diary, not trusting anything to memory. This was all so new, so strange. She had never been in a practice rink so cold that when a shot hit the crossbar-Ping!-the puck snapped in two, had never resorted to putting on a surgical mask while walking outdoors because the stench of burning coal made it seem as though she were living in a gasoline pump, had never waited 5 1/2 hours on the tarmac and then had meal trays fly around the cabin when the aircraft abruptly took off. Travel is always educational. You learn that what China has in a Great Wall, it lacks in a full upright-and-locked position.

Cammi Granato

Hockey player Cammi Granato

Granato was in China in January with the U.S. women's hockey team for a four-game, character-building tour-if Brillo-pad-sized roaches and backed-up toilets in the locker room actually do build character. The China trip was preparation for next February's Winter Olympics, in Nagano, Japan, where women's hockey will come in from the cold as a medal sport. In the U.S., with only 21,555 registered players, women's hockey exists on the margin of public consciousness, and if the Granato name has a familiar ring, it's only because nine-year National Hockey League veteran Tony Granato plays left wing for the San Jose Sharks. He has scored 30 goals in a season four times in his career, but he is still the second-best player in his family. "She has surpassed me," he says. "She's not my sister. I'm her brother."

Cammi, 26, is a better player in her universe than Tony is in his-universes that are separate and unequal but no more estranged from each other than women's and men's basketball. Women's hockey turns at 33 1/3 rpm instead of 45 and bodychecking is proscribed, although some contact can creep into the game if the players are subtle enough. Granato, who plays center, is nothing if not subtle, especially with the puck. She is not the fastest skater nor does she have an industrial-strength shot, but she has an innate sense of the game and passes as well as almost any center who isn't named Gretzky. She is the best American women's player and one of the Top 5 in the world, which gives her a status more like that of Pat LaFontaine, Chris Chelios or Brian Leetch than that of, say, Tony Granato.

If the U.S. can win the gold medal in Nagano-and it's closing the talent gap with top-ranked Canada-Cammi Granato will be America's skating sweetheart. The one who doesn't wear sequins.

Granato couldn't feel her feet, her fingers or her face during the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics. All she could feel was awe. She had been an Olympic junkie since age eight. The made-for-TV Miracle on Ice, the story of the gold-medal-winning 1980 U.S. men's hockey team, had been her Lion King. So, when the Olympians marched into the stadium at the beginning of the Calgary Games, she vowed that one day she would be part of the parade. If Tony could make an Olympic team, there was no reason she couldn't.

Cammi Granato

Granato passes as well as almost any center who isn't named Gretzky.

This is how Cammi grew up. Despite the attempts of her mother, Natalie, to steer her into figure skating at age four (Cammi would leave the ice to peer at the hockey game at the adjacent rink), hockey is what the Granatos did. Family vacations were spent at hockey camps. School book reports were done on hockey books. The Granato kids-Don, Robbie, Tony and sisters Cammi and Christina-played hockey on a pond near their house in suburban Chicago or in their own flooded yard. Cammi's brothers all were splendid players, and captains at Wisconsin, and she was swept along. "I really didn't think anything about it until I went to college and she was a young lady, 12 or 13," Tony says. "When I saw her in her first dress, it hit me. 'Wow, she's still playing hockey.'"

Cammi also batted cleanup on a boys' baseball team, played soccer and basketball through high school on girls' teams and twice was a member of medal-winning Olympic Festival girls' team handball squads. But she was, most of all, one of the Downers Grove Huskies, her hockey club from kindergarten until her junior year in high school. She was one of the guys (not until she went to Providence College on a hockey scholarship in 1989 did she play exclusively against women), although not everyone was oblivious to her chromosomes in the almost all-boy leagues that she played in. When she was an eighth-grader, an opposing coach told his players before a game that they should drill that girl, number 21, on the first shift. Cammi simply swapped Huskies jerseys with a male teammate, a strapping six-footer. Take that.

Blue lines are in her bloodline, but Cammi has never traded on the Granato name. "Her freshmen year at Providence, she had a poster of Tony on the wall," says Michelle Johansson, Granato's teammate first with the Friars, for whom Granato was a three-time ECAC Women's Hockey Player of the Year, and now at Concordia University in Montreal, where several former top American collegians have gone to continue studying and, equally important, play hockey after using up their NCAA eligibility. "I guess it was March when I said, 'Your name's Granato. That guy has the same last name as you.' Then she told me it was her brother. I told her, 'Well, you can't ever say I'm your friend because of who you are.'

"But there are situations when modesty gets in her way. At times at Providence she felt guilty getting all the attention. She thought it was because she was Tony's sister and it made a cute story. I had to tell her, 'Tony didn't score all those goals for you.' She's carved her own niche. She's not Cammi Granato, Tony Granato's sister. She's Cammi Granato, premier American women's hockey player."

Cammi Granato

Cammi will be on the ice, and brother Tony will be in the stands cheering next winter in Nagano.

She's so good that the New York Islanders wanted to see for themselves-not that Granato ever breathed a word about this unprecedented opportunity to anyone other than family and a few close friends. Some women goaltenders have gone to pro training camps, but no hockey man had ever thought it worthwhile to bring in a woman skater for a look. "I don't think either of us had the illusion she'd be on the power play, but I thought it was a good chance for her to gauge where she was," says Islanders general manager Mike Milbury, who extended the invitation last June. "It's incredible what she's meant to hockey. She's given it a profile in this country, more than good men players have been able to do."

Granato knew the invitation sounded like a gimmick-the sorry Islanders are the third of the three New York area hockey teams, and a woman in camp could have spawned no man is an islander headlines on tabloid back pages-but it also might be an opportunity. Granato hardly slept for three months as she reviewed the pros and cons of accepting Milbury's offer. One day she would wake up and say to herself, I'm going, this is a chance to call attention to women's hockey. The next day she would wake up and say, Nah, I'm five-seven, 140 pounds, and there are no 140-pounders in the NHL. Besides, I don't want to be the clown in a media circus.

"She might be second-guessing herself a little right now," says Tony, who had urged her to go and was sorry when she ultimately declined. In hockey matters Cammi usually defers to Tony. She listens when he admonishes, "Don't deke, just bury the puck," when they scrimmage in the summer with NHL players like Chicago defenseman Gary Suter. And she smiles when he says, "Drive carefully." She will always be his little, and poorer, sister.

"Yeah, it stinks," Cammi says, "watching my bank account go down to zero because I'm not working." She earns about $15,000 a year from stipends and lives with her boyfriend, Concordia player Andrew Chlebus, and two other students in an apartment decorated in Canadian Campus Gothic: A Stroh's beer clock, a Concordia banner and a Gretzky poster grace the living room. Not that women's hockey is without rewards: If a U.S. team commitment hadn't kept Granato from going on the Concordia squad's trip to Russia, she might have had a shot at the pink sash awarded to the Prettiest Girl of the Tournament in Magnitogorsk. She blanches at the thought.

Toughest Girl of the Tournament, now that has some appeal. She could have won that title at the 1995 Pacific Rim tournament when a Chinese player nailed her coming across the blue line. "I was so worried my knee was gone," Granato says. Instead, she had broken the fibula in her right leg. A team doctor taped the leg for stability, and she played four more games. "Sure, the pain killed me," Granato says, "but it was a non-weight-bearing bone."

Nothing, however, hurt more than being in the hospital on Feb. 14, 1996, when Tony, then with the Los Angeles Kings, was undergoing brain surgery, the aftermath of a collision with Hartford Whaler Jeff Brown. When Cammi arrived in California she picked up the Los Angeles Times. On the front page of the sports section was a diagram of her brother's brain. "I don't remember if I got through the article," she says. "Everything had been so good for Tony. He has this beautiful family. He's got lots of money. Things had been going great; then look what happened."

But Tony came through the surgery and resumed his career; on Aug. 15 he signed a three-year, $4.5 million contract with the Sharks. Commissioner Gary Bettman selected him to play in the All-Star Game. Cammi found out about the honor when she returned from China. Tony suggested she "pull a groin or something" so she could attend, but Cammi said, No, sorry, Concordia had a tournament in Providence, and this would be her first time on the ice with the Stingers in four weeks. The NHL All-Star festivities sounded like fun, but she was planning to take a seven-hour bus ride, share a motel room with three teammates and play three games in three days in front of maybe a few hundred people.

This is the life of the most important American hockey player.

The entire Granato family-Don, Natalie and Cammi's three brothers and sister-plans to be in Nagano. "That's as excited as I'll ever be about a hockey event," says Tony, "and I'm not even going to be playing."

"The Olympics became so real for me when the athletes walked into that stadium in Calgary," Cammi says. "There's a magic about it. The whole world comes to one place."

After Nagano? Maybe the Islanders will call again. Maybe they'll say, O.K., let's see this legend, and she'll scrimmage and absorb all the rough stuff that comes her way. If so, she knows what she will do next: She will ask the Islanders for jersey number 21 with not just granato but c. granato on the back. Years from now, she doesn't want anyone to say, "Oh, that jersey must have been your brother's."

 

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