Tuesday, February 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY. — To carry the torch like Cammi Granato did, along with Picabo Street, up the steps of Rice-Eccles Stadium in Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the Winter Games and hand it off to 1980 men’s hockey team captain Mike Eruzione and see the rest of that “Miracle on Ice” gold medal team emerge to light the Olympic flame would have been the memory of a lifetime for any Olympic athlete.

But for Granato, captain of the U.S. women’s hockey team that opens Olympic play today against Germany and star of its 1998 gold medal triumph in Nagano, it meant more than anyone could have realized. The dreams of a young girl had come full circle.

“It was quite an honor, but for me it was very special and very personal,” Granato said.

It was personal because as a girl, Cammi and her four hockey playing brothers including Tony, who went on to play for the San Jose Sharks in the NHL, used to imitate the 1980 American men’s hockey team in the basement of their Downer’s Grove, Ill., home, using sticks and a taped ball.

“I always wanted to be Mike Eruzione,” she said.

Now Cammi finds herself in a different role, an ironic twist. She is the leader of the women’s version of the mighty Russian Red Machine that had lost to the Americans in a stunning upset 22 years ago.

The U.S. women skated through the competition in their pre-Olympic tour, going 31-0 before arriving in Salt Lake City and pummeled the Russians 7-0 in a warmup game Thursday. Before the 1998 Nagano Games, the Americans had faced the Canadian women 13 times and won six of them. Before these games, the American women played the Canadian national team eight times and beat them every time.

This time it will take another miracle on ice for any team to stop the American women from winning their second gold medal.

“I don’t feel like we are the Russians,” Granato said, downplaying the comparison. “These teams are evenly matched, and the proof of that is the World Championships. We haven’t won one yet.”

That’s true. The United States did lose the gold medal game to Canada 3-1 last year. But Cammi Granato seems to have a lifelong connection to the Olympics that has brought her only good fortune.

Her role in the Opening Ceremony brought her back to her days of playing in the basement, and the many times she and her brothers had watched the television movie made about the 1980 men’s team.

“When I saw the whole team up there, all reaching up [toward the cauldron], it was like when they all had their hands raised up on the podium, when they got their gold medal,” Granato said,

And she had been the one to hand the torch to Eruzione, something that must have been beyond her wildest dreams as a girl, when she was ridiculed and harassed for wanting to play a game that little girls didn’t play. She would play on boys’ teams, and sometimes even disguised herself, tucking her hair under her helmet and switching jerseys with teammates so coaches from other teams wouldn’t target her, as they often did.

“She had to change in the girls’ bathroom while her teammates dressed in locker rooms,” said her mother, Natalie, who yesterday received an honor from Campbell’s Soup for being a “super parent” to an Olympian athlete. “There would be comments and snickers from other mothers and other little girls who were figure skaters.”

The harassment didn’t stop Cammi, and neither did the unlikelihood that she would ever realize some of her goals. She dreamed of playing in the NHL until her mother told her that girls don’t do that. “It probably broke her heart,” Natalie said.

It didn’t break her spirit. She also believed that someday she would play in the Olympics, after watching her brother Tony play for the United States in the 1988 Games.

“The 1980 team really did something to me,” she said. “But when I got a chance to see my brother up close at the 1988 Games and I saw what a wonderful experience it was, I wanted to be part of it.”

That might have seemed as ludicrous a notion at the time as playing in the NHL. After all, women’s hockey barely existed. But it was beginning to grow slowly, and Cammi was in on the ground floor. She graduated from high school in 1989 and went to Providence College on a hockey scholarship. A year later, she joined Team USA, and stayed long enough to realize her goal of winning a gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Games with an exciting 3-1 win over the team’s Canadian archrivals.

After winning the gold, Cammi, 30, became one of the stars of the 1998 Games, appearing on late night talk shows, doing endorsements, and even spending a year as a analyst on the Los Angeles Kings’ radio broadcasts. Her legacy in women’s hockey was set. She is the all-time leading scorer in the history of the U.S. women’s program, with 249 points. She is the only player who has been a member of all seven U.S. teams that competed in the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships. She is the acknowledged pioneer of women’s hockey.

But when she had a chance to come back for a shot at another gold medal, she grabbed it, even if it meant sleeping in dorms, enduring long bus rides to small towns for games and playing with some teammates who aren’t even old enough to drive yet.

“Playing in the Olympics is one of the greatest things an athlete can do,” she said. “I loved that feeling we had when we won the gold medal, and I want to feel it again.”

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