Thursday, January 29, 1997
Female rink rat's reward: Olympics

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Her mother tried to guide her to gentler games, but Cammi Granato wouldn't go. She wanted to be a hockey player, like her brothers before her, and she was too stubborn to be steered away.

''I encouraged her in every other sport so that she might love it as much as hockey,'' Natalie Granato said Wednesday. ''But it never worked. I told her if it was really what she wanted in her heart, she should stay in there. I didn't have to encourage her too much.''

Cammi Granato has never lacked for motivation, even when there was no lasting goal to motivate her. She was a hard-bitten rink rat long before the Olympics embraced women's hockey, persisting out of sheer passion and incurable contrariness when playing had to be its own reward.

Nagano marks the first time women's hockey has been accorded Olympic medal status. It also represents Cammi Granato's last laugh.

''One time I went to a tournament in Canada and I remember a coach saying if I stepped out on the ice, he was going to separate my shoulder,'' the captain of the U.S. women's hockey team said during a telephone press conference Wednesday. ''Another time I switched jerseys with my cousin because my coach overheard the other coach saying to hit me the first time on the ice.''

Teammates rarely troubled her, for many of them were relatives. Cammi Granato took up hockey while tagging along behind three older brothers, and remembers playing on a team with nine or 10 Granatos. Her oldest brother, Tony, now plays for the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League.

''What I remember growing up is she would find a way to fit into whatever games we were playing,'' Tony Granato said. ''It took me a while to realize it was something out of the ordinary. I was probably 15 or 16 when I realized my buddies' little sisters weren't playing hockey.''

Brother in NHL

As the boys' games grew more physical, and the checking less polite, Cammi's brothers became increasingly protective. Much as they hoped Cammi would find fulfillment in some non-contact sport, they saw she was happiest chasing pucks. She was pretty good at it, too.

''She was here last week,'' Tony Granato said, ''and I was struggling quite a bit. I watched her play, and talked to her afterward. The following night was probably my best game of the season. She probably doesn't realize it, but I think she means more to my game than I do to hers as far as helping each other out.''

When Cammi Granato went to Providence College, she began by following her brothers' example, and was penalized three times in her first game because the women's rules forbid checking. After gaining control of her aggressive instincts, she developed into a dominating player, scoring 139 goals in 99 games.

If a man did that, it would have meant millions. For Cammi Granato, it meant a job coaching juniors, and a pang that her playing career had ended prematurely. So she quit her job and enrolled in graduate school in Montreal, mainly to maintain a competitive edge on her skates.

''I've known since I was a senior in college that women's hockey was in the Olympics,'' she said. ''I realized, 'I've got to dedicate my life to this.' There have been a lot of sacrifice from that standpoint, but I don't have any regrets. I'm living the high life right now.''

Life on hold

Natalie Granato worries that her daughter has put life on hold for the sake of hockey. She has told Cammi that if she got married and had children, mom would be glad to help.

Cammi Granato, 26, appreciated the offer, but not as much as her Olympic opportunity. She declined the New York Islanders' invitation to become the first female non-goaltender to attend an NHL camp out of concern that an injury might mess with her Olympic moment.

''It's a wonderful time to play,'' she said. ''It's a nice reward for all the obstacles we had when we were younger. I'm definitely not finished playing hockey. If there's a professional league out there, I'm probably going to hop out of my rocking chair and play.''