25 YEARS AFTER HISTORIC NAGANO GOLD, CAMMI GRANATO CONTINUES BREAKING GROUND
by Karen Price
Cammi Granato grew up dreaming of playing hockey in the Olympic Games and the NHL, just like her brothers.
Even when parents pointed and whispered at the only girl carrying a hockey bag into the rink, and the figure skaters called her weird, she had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t happen. At least not until she was 12 or 13, she said, when she began to realize that women didn’t have the same opportunities as men to play at that level.
“I dreamt of playing for the (Chicago) Blackhawks and in the Olympics, just like my brothers, and I was really upset that they could take it further than I could because of their gender,” said Granato, now 51. “I didn’t define myself by my gender. I was a hockey player, just like my brothers. It was a hard moment to swallow.”
Of course, Granato not only made it to the Olympics when women’s hockey made its debut in 1998, but she also won the first gold medal awarded in the sport as the captain of Team USA. And although she never got to play for the Blackhawks, she made history yet again in recent years by becoming the first female pro scout in the NHL and now one of a small number of female assistant general managers.
When women’s hockey made its Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan, 25 years ago this month, there were 22,000 women and girls playing hockey in the U.S., according to USA Hockey. For many, seeing the U.S. and Canadian women’s teams on their pre-Olympic tour at NHL arenas across North America was the first time they witnessed women playing the sport at such a high level. Then, suddenly, the team was on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the entire world.
At the time, Granato said, the players were more focused on making the most of the opportunity in front of them than who might be watching. It wasn’t until the summer after the Games when she and several teammates held a hockey camp in Chicago that she began to realize the impact they’d had.
“We get to this arena I grew up playing at and there are 118 girls at this camp, and I was floored,” she said. “And in that camp were players like (future Olympians) Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne, and just the energy in the building felt like … not like we’d arrived, but I didn’t know there was that much interest in women’s hockey. I hadn’t seen it before. That hit me hardest in terms of realizing how we’d impacted the game and where the sport could go. It was really great.”
While little details from the Olympic Winter Games Nagano 1998 may fade with time, Granato said, only to come back when she and her teammates get together and reminisce, other memories will stay with her forever. First, the feeling when the final buzzer sounded and the celebration on the ice. Then, the medal ceremony. Then the gold-medal game itself, a 3-1 victory over archrival Canada, and the massive attention that followed once they returned home.
“That’s something to note is we came from virtually nowhere to being in the Olympics on the world stage, and then we won the gold medal,” Granato said. “I’m not sure how many other medalists there were that year, but we were a big focus and people wanted to hear from us.
“We were flying all over the corporate world giving speeches, going on the ‘Today’ show, going on David Letterman. … We were like, ‘What is happening?’” she continued. “Two weeks before the pre-Olympic tour we were playing in colleges in front of a handful of fans and friends, people we knew.
“Then we were cast into this place where it hit us that wow, people actually care. It was neat to see the country embrace the win and appreciate us.”
Granato went on to win an Olympic silver medal in 2002 and ended her record-setting career as the all-time leading scorer for Team USA with 343 points.
In 2010, Granato was one of the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The 1998 team was inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019. And current figures put women’s participation in hockey in the U.S. at 88,000.
Granato is once again breaking ground for women in the sport in a very visible way. She became the first woman to work as a pro scout in the NHL when the Seattle Kraken hired her in 2019 — there are now a handful more — then in February 2022 she joined the Vancouver Canucks as an assistant GM, becoming just the third woman to hold that position.
It’s been slow, incremental growth toward greater acceptance, and Granato even to this day hears the occasional rumblings from people questioning her ability to do her job based on her gender.
“When someone says something trying to get a rise out of me, I’m like, ‘You think I haven’t heard this before?’” she said.
But with social media, young girls can now follow their favorite players and role models in ways that didn’t exist when Granato first played in the Olympics. There are more television and streaming opportunities of national team games, women’s professional games and major international tournaments. It’s all progress, even if it is slow.
Members of the 1998 team stay in touch now more than they did in the years immediately following the Games, Granato said, thanks to group chat. They’re planning their first reunion since the 20th anniversary for later this year.
“I’d always wondered how it would feel, watching all these different championships and just being intrigued by the celebrations,” she said. “When we were able to do that, to have such a big moment like my heroes from the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, to do that was so surreal.
“That never leaves you.”