Inspired by USWNT, Cammi Granato hopes for sustainable future for women’s hockey

Cammi Granato, Marty Turco, Legends Classic, hockey
Marty Turco hits the ice to stop Cammi Granato at the Legends Classic game at the Air Canada Centre on Nov. 8, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Cammi Granato is no ordinary soccer mom. The 48-year-old North Vancouver resident is a legend for captaining the U.S. to the gold medal at the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey tournament in 1998, but she also cherishes the “beautiful game.”

Black text that reads why this matters
Cammi Granato, who led the U.S. women’s hockey team to the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, believes the example of the outspoken, successful U.S. women’s national soccer team today can help to amplify her sport too.

In 1989, Granato seriously considered playing soccer at the University of Wisconsin before she accepted a hockey scholarship at Providence College, where she became the college’s all-time leading scorer. This year, the Hockey Hall of Famer fought back tears while seeing her oldest son, Riley, off to compete with the Vancouver Whitecaps FC Pre-Academy boys in the CONCACAF Champions League U13 competition in Costa Rica.

 Granato has long admired the U.S. women’s national soccer team, dating to the iconic players who won the home-turf 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The skillful skater from Downers Grove, Illinois, idolized Mia Hamm and befriended Julie Foudy.

As the USWNT dominated opponents en route to this year’s Women’s World Cup title in France, Granato monitored its battle with U.S. Soccer for equitable pay and working conditions. It recalled how her national team was rebuffed by USA Hockey in 2000 after making similar demands. Those issues remained unresolved until the hockey team threatened to boycott the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan, and secured a new deal with the federation just before winning a fourth straight world title.

 “I’m so impressed with the USWNT’s ability to speak out,” Granato said. “When we were playing, if we spoke out, there wasn’t a rallying cause around us. And our places were threatened on the team. We had to shut up if we wanted to play, or at least that’s what we were told. We weren’t allowed to really have a voice. These girls can have that voice, but it still takes a lot of guts. I saw Megan Rapinoe on CNN, and they were asking her questions about our president. For her to have the courage to share her opinions on helping the country, I thought it was incredible. She’s way more than just a soccer player. She’s an advocate and a leader.”

Granato, the leading goal-scorer in Women’s World Championship history, said she believes social media has become a great equalizer for women’s sports in terms of visibility and advocacy. Even though female athletes can become high-profile targets on social media, as with U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of Rapinoe after she said she would not visit the White House, Granato pointed out that facing toxic comments certainly predates smartphones. 

“I heard my entire life that I’m playing a man’s sport and shouldn’t be playing hockey,” she said. “Growing up, there were hockey dads who went to the coach and said, ‘She shouldn’t be on this team. My boy’s going to quit.’ Players on other teams harassed me. I had coaches threaten to break my collarbone. Honestly, that stuff to me was laughable. I was like, ‘You can think whatever you think. I know I love this game and no one’s going to take it away from me.’ That’s how most of the girls feel. We’re used to having people say, ‘Go back to the kitchen,’ all these negative remarks. It’s just noise.”

2019 has been a tumultuous year for professional women’s hockey. This spring, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) abruptly folded after 12 seasons, succumbing to financial woes, scant media coverage and low attendance. In May, approximately 200 elite players formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA), vowing not to play professionally in North America in 2019-20 and seeking an NHL-backed women’s league, similar to the NBA-backed WNBA. Olympic superstars such as the U.S.’s Hilary Knight and Canada’s Shannon Szabados serve on the PWHPA board. They recently announced a “Dream Gap” barnstorming tour, visiting North American cities to play exhibition games and run youth clinics this fall.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has pressed onward, signing mostly non-national team NWHL veterans and rookies fresh out of college for the upcoming season.

Granato said she was not fazed by the CWHL’s dissolution: “I knew that having that piece go away meant, yes, we took a couple steps back. Girls lost jobs for the year. But it wasn’t their primary job anyway. It was a place to play hockey and compete outside of college when they couldn’t play there anymore. So I think it’s a good thing because now conversations are happening. The NHL is talking about it. We’re moving in the right direction. It’s a really good time for women’s sports in general.”

She understands why PWHPA members are avoiding the five-team NWHL, which has been criticized for slashing already-meager salaries, not providing players with health insurance, and lacking transparency, among other issues. The PWHPA is aiming to achieve long-term sustainability for women’s hockey.

“Imagine if you were in that situation and you knew that you could potentially have this very successful pro league supported by the NHL,” Granato said. “Standing together and boycotting (the NWHL) where, maybe, they don’t know what the future looks like and might not have the resources, I think it’s important to do that. They’re doing it for the right reasons. They’re not doing it just to say: ‘We’re not playing.’ They understand that ahead of them lies something really amazing that could come out of it.”

In terms of building the audience, Granato is encouraged by a younger generation that she believes is “not differentiating” between watching men’s and women’s sports. Convergence is key.

In 1998, she tasted the exposure that an Olympic gold medal could bring to women’s hockey when she was a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman. Yet according to Granato, while the Americans made history by defeating archrival Canada for their second Olympic gold in South Korea in 2018, current U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield had an even bigger impact when the 26-year-old became the first woman to participate in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in 2019. Coyne Schofield clocked a blazing 14.346 seconds in the fastest skater event, placing seventh out of eight competitors.

“It was bigger than the gold medal because it was on a stage with the men, the all-stars,” Granato said. “When I saw Kendall, I could barely breathe for her when she was going to start. I’m like, ‘You got this. You can do this.’ She’s been fast her whole life. For her to do it the way she did, it even blew away people who knew she was fast, like me. It just shattered the ceiling. It was amazing and historic.”

In 1999, Coyne Schofield attended Granato’s hockey camp for girls when she was 7. This August at Vancouver’s North Shore Winter Club, Granato ran her first such camp in more than a decade. She is busy raising Riley and his younger brother, Reese, with her husband, former NHL player and current TV analyst Ray Ferraro. She has explored second career paths from holistic nutrition to public speaking. Yet Granato clearly wants to keep contributing to a sustainable future for women’s hockey.

Lucas Aykroyd writes for the New York Times, espnW, and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Based in Vancouver, he has covered women’s hockey at five Winter Olympics and four IIHF Women’s World Championships.

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