Publish date:

Lady with a Big Stick

Cammi Granato, product of a hockey-mad family, is the top player on the best team in the nation

It's chilly at the edge of the hockey rink, especially if one is wearing a skirt and panty hose, as Cammi Granato is. But she isn't shivering. "I didn't sleep last night," she says, her eyes fixed on the ice at Providence College's Schneider Arena. Was it the eight large pizzas she and her Lady Friar teammates wolfed down at her apartment while watching Slap Shot before their 11 p.m. pregame curfew? Or was it the savage cross-checking featured in the film? Neither, it turns out. "I was just visualizing..." she says, her voice trailing off.

Granato scans the empty ice and imagines herself threading through crimson-jerseyed defenders. She sees herself making a perfect pass to her left wing or firing a bullet on the fly straight into the net.

Several hours later, Harvard, the Lady Friars' first opponent of the season, is chastened 6-0 before the 150 spectators who have shrugged off Sunday-morning sloth and a cold rain to come to the game. Granato gets two goals and an assist and performs a one-revolution spread-eagle spin after a head-on collision with a Harvard player. All of which she shrugs off. And after the game, Granato, 21, the senior center for the defending collegiate champions and the best female hockey player in the U.S., continues her visualizing. In her mind she substitutes the green jerseys of Dartmouth, the Lady Friars' next opponent, for the crimson ones.

Don and Natalie Granato's first daughter, Christina, somehow evaded hockey and found her athletic outlet as a cheerleader for the Chicago Bears' 1986 Super Bowl championship team. But the hockey bug bit Cammi, whose full name is Catherine Michelle, as hard as it did any of her four brothers. When Cammi was four, Natalie signed her up for figure skating classes at a studio adjacent to a hockey rink near the Granato home in Broadview, Ill. "I bought her the whole skating outfit—a little skirt and little pom-poms for her skates," says Natalie. "As soon as I turned my back during that first lesson, she walked right off the ice and through the door to watch a hockey game."

Was it any surprise? Back in the early '60s Don had courted Natalie by taking her to Chicago Blackhawk games. Later the Hawks became a pacifier of sorts for the Granatos' energetic first child, Tony, who was destined to tear through the local hockey-club system and star at Wisconsin and on the '88 U.S. Olympic team before joining the New York Rangers and then Wayne Gretzky's line on the L.A. Kings. Two other sons, Don and Rob, would follow Tony onto the ice at Wisconsin.

At the Granato house, hockey was inescapable: Christmas was a Blackhawk paraphernalia swap; family vacation was a hockey camp in Toronto or Colorado Springs; school papers were essays on hockey, short stories on hockey, book reports on hockey; treasure was an autographed kneepad from Blackhawk star Keith Magnuson; recreation was hockey in the Granatos' makeshift backyard rink or full-contact soccer or, later, hockey in the basement of the family's Downers Grove, Ill., home. "We were always looking for little brothers or sisters to play goal," says Tony, "so Cammi was playing whether she liked it or not."

Cammi Granato played organized hockey as a forward for the Downers Grove Huskies from kindergarten through her junior year in high school. She wore 21, Tony's number. Often she was the only girl and the youngest player on the ice. Often an opposing team's toughs threatened to break her shoulders, "to warn me that I wasn't good enough to play with them," she says. Always she proved them wrong, if not with bruising checks, then with a handful of goals and several brilliant passes. "If you were a spectator, you would never have guessed there was a girl out there," says Cammi's cousin Bob Granato, who played on her team when they were both teenagers. "Of course, you might have wondered who the guy with the long hair was."

"I have a feeling that if I hadn't been as successful at putting the puck away, the guys might not have been so crazy about having me as a teammate," she says now. "You had to take that extra step to be accepted."

Although she has been a U.S. star in two world championships (in 1990 and '92), received the Bob Johnson medallion (presented to the top four U.S. players, male or female, in international competition) in 1992 and two Eastern College Athletic Conference Player of the Year awards and she is generally held in awe by the female hockey-playing world, Granato continues to take that extra step. "Cammi's the first one on the ice, the last one off,"' says her Providence teammate Wendy Cofran, who plays wing. "She's always willing to help with little things and is very down-to-earth. I love playing with her."

"There are other players with great skills," says Providence coach John Marchetti. "Others may skate faster or shoot the puck better. But it all comes together for Cammi. Success follows her wherever she goes. But you reap what you sow," he adds. "She has such a work ethic."

Sophomore Stephanie O'Sullivan, who is Granato's linemate and the heir apparent to her role as the Lady Friars' franchise player, compares her to Mario Lemieux. "Cammi has that same long reach," O'Sullivan says. "She always manages to find a way to get a puck in."

Granato, 5'1", 140 pounds and quick, applied her awareness and athletic talent to a number of sports at Downers Grove North High School. Division ITT basketball programs sent her recruiting letters; Wisconsin wanted her to play soccer; in 1989 and '90 she won silver and gold medals in team handball at the Olympic Festivals; and who knows which collegiate tennis coach would have been breathing down her neck had Don and Natalie followed the advice of Cammi's high school tennis coach and shipped her off to Nick Bolletieri's camp in Florida when she was 14 years old.

But Granato's enduring love is ice hockey, a sport that 15,000 American girls and women play in virtual obscurity. Even at Providence, which, along with New Hampshire and Northeastern, is a hotbed of the women's collegiate sport, game accounts are often buried in the paragraphs just above the Punt, Pass and Kick news in the local paper.

Fortunately for Granato, every sport has its grapevine. The Lady Friars, one of three programs that offered scholarships to women in 1989 (none does at the moment), heard about her performance in a tournament in Ontario in 1988 and offered her a grant-in-aid the next year, sight unseen. "It was a gamble, but a small one," says Marchetti. "Our sources told us she stood out among some of the best players in the nation."

Last year Granato set school single-season scoring records for goals (48) and points (80) as the Lady Friars skated to a 22-2-1 record and the ECAC title, which is, in effect, the national championship. When Granato got her 20th goal of the season, on Jan. 27, she became the Lady Friars' alltime leader in goals scored, with 114. But she is by no means a one-woman show. She is surrounded by a cast of powerful finesse players, including O'Sullivan, last year's ECAC rookie of the year, and ECAC all-star defensemen Vicki Movsessian and Chris Bailey.

Like Granato, many of the Lady Friars grew up checking on boys' teams and have a certain familiarity with the boards. But U.S. collegiate rules prohibit checking in women's hockey. ("You can't exactly lay anyone out against the boards," says Cofran, "but a lot of the same stuff goes on. You just have to be more sly.") So while the women's game lacks most of the bone-crunching collisions and some of the speed of the men's game, it places more emphasis on playmaking, puck-handling and overall finesse. And the competition is as fierce as it gets in any league.

Granato is well aware that a second consecutive ECAC championship (the, final four is Feb. 27-28 at Northeastern in Boston) will be no cakewalk. "When you're on top, everybody's more anxious to knock you off," she says. But even if the Lady Friars come up short this season, Granato will have many gratifying memories from the last four years. She has seen the crowds at Lady Friar games increase from dozens to scores. She has witnessed, as a member of two silver medal world championship teams, the enthusiasm that women's hockey can generate.

And when women's ice hockey debuts as a full medal Olympic sport in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, Granato intends to be on the ice. Although the avenues for staying competitive between graduation in June of '93 and the Winter Games of '98 are limited—she could play in a European or Canadian league or become an assistant coach with a college hockey team—she sees herself on the U.S. team. "I was at the Olympics in Calgary when Tony played," she says. "I just try to remember what that was like, and that will keep me going. I'll be there, because I can visualize myself there."



Cammi had a Mite-y early start.



Granato holds Lady Friar records for goals (48) and points (80) in a season.



She was one of the boys in '81.



Tony played in the '88 Games; Cammi expects to be on the U.S. women's team in 1998.