THE TRAILBLAZER

in Seattle
THE TRAILBLAZER
Cammi Granato inspired an entire generation of American hockey players. Now, as a scout with the Seattle Kraken, she’s breaking new barriers in the game she’s helped grow.
in Seattle

C ammi Granato is watching the Seattle Kraken’s morning skate ahead of the first home game in franchise history and her biceps are hurting. The Hall of Famer has been in the city less than 24 hours, but it’s been go, go, go, since she arrived.

Last night, Granato was here at Climate Pledge Arena for a Coldplay concert — she’s a big fan, especially of their old stuff. She was singing along, up in a box, though she wished at times she’d been down on the floor, dancing. And then earlier this morning, Granato was wearing a Kraken jersey with her name and No. 21 on the back, standing as high as a person can safely stand on Seattle’s Space Needle, yanking on a rope to raise a Kraken flag to the Needle’s very top. That explains the sore arms.

The Kraken scout who was nearly 600 feet in the air about an hour ago is now just below ground level, sitting in the arena’s lower bowl among a handful of the team’s front office staff, including director of hockey strategy and research, Alexandra Mandrycky. A couple weeks ago, Mandrycky, Granato and GM Ron Francis were in a box at Rogers Arena for a pre-season game against the Vancouver Canucks. “Cammi and I kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This might be the first time women have ever outnumbered men in a GM box in the league,’” Mandrycky says. “I think we’ve had a lot of moments like that.”

When the skate ends, Granato gets up from her seat, and the bottom of the Kraken jersey she had on for the flag-raising peeks out below her zipped-up black rain jacket — those Kraken blues really do pop. “You could’ve just gotten out on the ice with the guys,” Mandrycky says. Granato smiles and shakes her head. “After pulling that flag up, my biceps are just…” she says, scrunching her face up. Her slap shot probably wouldn’t have its usual zip.

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This is Cammi Granato’s first full-time job in hockey since she was still out on the ice as the greatest American woman to play this game, and one of the greatest the sport has ever witnessed, period. The first to captain her team to Olympic hockey gold, and inducted in the first-ever Hockey Hall of Fame class to include women, Granato, now 50, has added “first female professional NHL scout” to her resume. That last first could’ve come a lot sooner if Granato’s primary focus was trailblazing. She has had ample opportunity to return to the game since she last made her mark on the ice 15 years ago, but it wasn’t until the Kraken recruited her to help build their team back in 2019 that Granato committed. The timing and nature of the role were good fits for her family, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. “To be honest, the job that I got here in Seattle was so refreshing,” Granato says, now seated on the concourse level while the team’s electric Zamboni hums across the ice. “So refreshing. It felt like I was back in the game in a really healthy environment.”

Ah, yes, a healthy environment. Those words are beautifully refreshing in and of themselves. Hockey’s unhealthy environment is the focus these days — the stain on the Chicago Blackhawks for burying alleged sexual abuse, and the league’s subsequent failure to take meaningful action will forever tarnish the NHL. For hockey fans desperate to cling to something that feels even a bit hopeful, Seattle offers somewhere to turn, even if the on-ice results aren’t there yet. The team isn’t the answer to all the NHL’s problems, of course. Far from it. But seeing Granato here is one of the clear signs the Kraken are doing things differently. The fact her hiring was deemed “outside-the-box” because of its historic nature is only a reflection of the limited box NHL franchises regularly operate within. Seattle is signaling change in the way this team is run, and it had to in order to land Granato. America’s first female hockey star left this game broken-hearted 15 years ago, and she wasn’t going to commit to just any opportunity.

N obody ever really called Granato, “Catherine,” even if that’s the name written on her plaque in the Hall of Fame (“Cammi” is in brackets); even if that’s what her parents, Natalie and Don, had printed on her birth certificate. All six of Natalie and Don’s kids are named after aunts and uncles, and Cammi was Cammi from Day 1, a combination of aunts Cathy and Mimi.

All four brothers named for uncles wanted their younger sister to be a goalie, so they’d have someone to shoot on. (The other Granato sister, Christina, was ruled out since she was into dance and cheerleading.) But the boys couldn’t convince Cammi. Instead, she played forward, often alongside them and always on boys’ teams until she was 16.

For a couple summers, Granato played for the Elmhurst Huskies in Chicago, where she grew up. Ricky Olczyk, now the Kraken’s assistant general manager, was a teammate when they were 15 and 16 years old. “She was better than a lot of the guys, there’s no question,” Olczyk says. “Very skilled and very smart — such an intelligent player. We wanted players who could help us win, and that’s what Cammi could do.”

“Cammi and I kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This might be the first time women have ever outnumbered men in a GM box in the league.'”

It was around that same time, though, that Granato realized that while her brothers and teammates were still getting bigger, she wasn’t (she’d tap out at five-foot-seven). Her last two years at Downers Grove North High School, she didn’t play on a hockey team because, she says, “the focus was on hitting.” The American women’s national team had just been established, but there wasn’t yet a world championship or Olympic tournament to aspire to. “It really angered me that my brothers were able to pursue their dreams, and to the highest level, and I couldn’t,” she says. Her plan was to resume hockey in college on a women’s team.

The trouble was the Granatos’ home phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with recruitment calls. So, Granato called a few colleges herself. “Nobody wanted me,” she says. Just when she thought she was out of options, the assistant coach at Providence College invited her to play for the Friars.

Granato exploded out of the gate as a rookie at Providence. “I remember getting out there and feeling like I was relentless. It was like letting me out of a cage, you know what I mean?” she says, laughing. “My first collegiate game I had three penalties, because I had checking in boys’ hockey. And then I was like, ‘Oh boy, I’ve really got to dial it down.’ But I was on the ice every day. It was the most incredible thing. And I was one of those players, I had to score. I felt like if I didn’t, I wasn’t doing my job.”

Granato really did her job: She set every school scoring record at Providence and led her team to back-to-back ECAC championships. Her 139 career goals and 256 points still stand as the best numbers posted in either the men’s or women’s programs, something Kraken forward Brandon Tanev knows well. He attended Providence 20 years after Granato. “When I was there, you heard all these stories about her playing there, all the points she put up,” Tanev says. “She was one of those really special alumni you’d always hear about.”

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The IIHF hosted the first-ever women’s world championship in 1990, while Granato was still a student. The moment the 19-year-old got her Team USA jersey, she immediately threw it on over her t-shirt. “I was just like, ‘I get to do this, right?’” she says. “It was such an honour to get to represent my country.” Her older brother, Tony, had earned the opportunity for six straight years in the ‘80s, but she never figured she’d have the chance herself.

Granato’s debut on the world stage as a teenager quickly established her as one of the best in the game. She had 14 points in five games, and though Team USA didn’t win, that tournament in Ottawa started her dreaming again about where the game might take her. “I remember sitting on the bench during the gold medal game and looking around and going, ‘This is the most incredible thing,’” she says. “Even though we were losing and we didn’t win gold, I was literally in awe over the moment of, ‘Look at where women’s hockey is.’ I had no idea. I had been so heartbroken that the women’s game wasn’t like the men’s game and that I couldn’t take it as far, and here I am in this 10,000-seat arena with a packed crowd that’s loving the game.”

Eight years later, Granato was selected as captain of the American team that went on to win the first Olympic gold in women’s hockey history. It was a comeback for the ages in Nagano, too: Granato scored first for the U.S., and after the Americans found themselves down 4–1 in the third, they answered with six straight goals, including a second from their captain.

“The medal coming over my neck and hitting me, it was so heavy,” Granato remembers. “I literally wanted to curl up and cry, because there’s so much emotion. You’ve just done almost the impossible. Really, from a sports perspective, there was nothing that tops it.”

On the losing side for Team Canada was Jayna Hefford, and at the time, it was devastating. “Looking back, it was nice to see Cammi get that win,” says Hefford, herself a four-time Olympic gold medallist, which helps explain why the loss stings a bit less these days. “Especially later on in my career as I realized how influential she was to our sport, to hockey in the United States. She was such a leader and you could tell she was so respected within her own group. And then it extended to players like myself and others who didn’t know her on a personal level, but could see the leadership she brought.”

Team USA defender Angela Ruggiero, who was on that 1998 championship team, saw that leadership first-hand from the moment she joined the program as a 15-year-old. “Even back then, she was eating super healthy and clean — I remember being like, ‘What are you eating over there?’ I’m eating kids’ food and she’s like, gluten-free or something, even back then,” Ruggiero says, laughing. “That wasn’t common. But she was always trying to figure out how to get better. And as I continued to play — I played in four Olympics — those are the little things I remember: ‘You can be better, Angela.’ And it was Cammi who showed me those things, and they made a big difference to me.”

As a player, Granato was a clutch goal-scorer who played with “a level of grace,” as Hefford puts it. (Granato got in only a handful of scrum-type fights in her career, including one with Hayley Wickenheiser that left Granato with a cut above her upper lip and the only two stitches she’s ever needed.) “She was the best in the game at scoring goals. She’d always score on the backdoor of the power play,” Hefford says. “You knew exactly where she was going to be, and you still couldn’t stop it. That killed us in a lot of circumstances.”

Ruggiero, the future Hall of Fame defenceman, went up against Granato a lot in practice and found shiftiness, smarts and unpredictability made Granato tough to stop. “When she was in front of the net she seemed to find the back of the net,” Ruggiero says. “I hate comparing [female players] to the men because people always do that and it’s not fair, but you know, there was no one before her. She was like a Wayne Gretzky.”

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After that Olympic win, Granato was the biggest name in her sport. She was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. She was on Today. The team was on a Wheaties box. And the growth of the game was exponential: Two years later, in 2000, the NCAA made women’s hockey a full-time sport in its programs. “A lot of that is having someone like Cammi as your spokesperson,” Ruggiero says of the sport’s growth. “On top of her hockey skills and her leadership, she was a very eloquent spokesperson for USA Hockey, for women’s hockey.”

At the next Olympics in Salt Lake City, captain Granato and Team USA didn’t get the fairy-tale ending on home soil, enduring a loss against Canada that stung particularly hard for a team that had gone 33–0 that season. Granato planned to make the 2006 Olympics her last, and captained the American team to a world championship gold medal the year before. She’d decided to play in Turin and then retire, hopefully with another heavy Olympic gold medal hanging around her neck. But she never got the chance. Six months before the Games, Ben Smith, the long-time coach of the American women’s team, cut his captain. Few in hockey saw the decision coming.

“It was the biggest shock — shock to the system, shock to the team,” Ruggiero says. “It never ever, ever, ever once entered my mind that she wouldn’t be on that team. It was like the carpet getting pulled out from under you, and the foundation of your team, which was Cammi, getting pulled. It was really hard as a team to recover, and clearly we didn’t.” The American women didn’t make the final in Turin, and went on to win bronze, the worst Olympic result in the program’s history.

Smith, who retired earlier this year, is not doing interviews, according to USA Hockey. The organization also declined an invitation to revisit the decision to cut Granato ahead of the 2006 Olympics.

“That’s what she’s done in the U.S. for hockey. She’s the face of hockey, right? A lot of us just equate hockey and throwing on the jersey to Cammi.”

Granato had put everything into preparing for Turin. She skated with NHLers, shot more pucks than ever, was stronger than she’d ever been. “I was at a peak — I was completely prepared, mentally and physically. And then I had to go home to nothing. There was no other team to go to,” she says. “It was probably like when someone has a career-ending injury and they don’t know it’s coming, it’s just over. I was completely blindsided.”

Granato had been coming off a knee injury, and suspects the coaching staff wondered whether she was slowing down. But she says nobody ever communicated that to her, either before or after the decision came. “There were no checks and balances. I didn’t get a heads up that it was even a consideration,” she says. “It left a pretty bad taste for a long time. For all the years I’d been in the program, I felt disrespected.”

After she went home, Granato had a hard time even watching her stepson, Landon Ferraro, play hockey. “It was hard to go into the rink and feel anything but disappointment. I didn’t have the best feelings about the game,” she says. “I didn’t want to be bitter, I just wasn’t over it. I needed time.”

H ilary Knight isn’t sure how old she was, but she was young and starstruck when she attended the Cammi Granato Gold Medal Camp. Knight, who wears No. 21 after her idol, recalls fellow Team USA star Kendall Coyne Schofield was at that hockey camp, too. They’re now both world and Olympic champions; two of the best in the game.

“I was so nervous at her camp, and I remember I broke two of my hockey sticks and Cammi let me use hers,” Knight recalls. “It was way too big, but I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing ever.’ If there was any doubt, it definitely solidified in that moment: I want to be just like her.”

Savannah Harmon, another Team USA member, attended a Granato camp when she was four or five years old. Harmon is from Downers Grove, Ill., like Granato, and in her room at her parents’ house, there’s still a framed picture of her little self, dressed in hockey gear and grinning ear-to-ear, standing beside Granato, who’s wearing a tracksuit. “My parents still talk about it — that’s what fuelled my fire to get into hockey, that Cammi Granato hockey camp and meeting her and getting to see where hockey could take you,” Harmon says. “I’m 26 years old and I’m still looking up to her in the same way. She’s still doing that trailblazing; she’s still creating new paths for us all to follow.”

Earlier this year, Knight scored her 79th career point for the U.S. national team on the world championship stage, breaking Granato’s record for points at that tournament by an American. Knight also broke Granato’s record as the all-time leading goal-scorer in world championship history, though Granato remains Team USA’s all-time leading scorer, with 343 points.

“Cammi is the figure that, even if I’m within [sight of] the record or [I’ve] passed the record, she’s always going to be No. 1 to me,” Knight says. “That’s what she’s done in the U.S. for hockey. She’s the face of hockey, right? A lot of us just equate hockey and throwing on the jersey to Cammi.”

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T od Leiweke is walking through the concourse of Climate Pledge Arena, and when he spots Granato, the Kraken president, CEO and part-owner stops on a dime. “Excuse me,” he says, interrupting a conversation as he and Granato go in for a hug. “I love this woman and I just had to say hello.” The pair have an animated discussion about last night’s Coldplay concert. They’re hoping tonight’s home opener tops singer Chris Martin’s performance, which blew them both away.

Leiweke has known Granato a long time. He hired her back in 1998, while she was still playing, to work as a radio analyst for the L.A. Kings. It was one of a few broadcasting gigs Granato has had over the years. She was one of the first reporters to be positioned between NHL benches during games.

Minutes after Granato and Leiweke finish chatting, her phone rings. It’s her 11-year-old son, Reese. He wanted Mom to know he won his soccer game, 1–0. “He had to win,” she explains, after they’ve hung up. “He’s super pumped.” Both of her sons, Reese and 14-year-old Riley, are soccer players. They like hockey, but wanted something different from Mom and Dad, Ray Ferraro.

“There is part of me that wants to represent really well for women, because I know there’ll be more to follow. There have always been women qualified for this job, I was lucky to be the first one.”

The scouting role was a good fit for Granato because her boys are a bit older, and Ferraro, a former pro turned broadcast analyst, travels frequently for hockey himself. “I know how important family is — my family, what a team we were, and my mom was always there. I didn’t want to be the mom that left the kids all the time,” she says. “And Ron [Francis] is incredibly respectful toward family.” Her job sees her attend most games locally in Vancouver, where she lives, plus a bit of travel outside the city.

Granato has been immersed in hockey her whole life, but she’s still learning some aspects of scouting, now a couple of years in. “The first few scouting reports I did, I was taking hours to do,” she says. “When I started, I wanted to get it right. I was thinking: ‘Get all the information in. Should I say this? Should I not say this?’ I was so new. My first reports were probably just write-offs. You learn what to prioritize in reports, but I had to be patient with myself, because it takes a while.”

Building up files on players wasn’t going to happen overnight, which Granato had to remind herself of. As the first woman in this role, she also felt added pressure to be an asset early on. “There is part of me that wants to represent really well for women, because I know there’ll be more to follow,” she says. “There have always been women qualified for this job, I was lucky to be the first one. And it’s cool to know that girls can dream of this now because I had no idea that it was a possibility. I just didn’t think of it, because women just didn’t get hired to NHL roles.”

The Kraken boast one of the most diverse front offices in the NHL, and from the start have focused on bringing in a wide range of voices and experiences. Seattle hired the league’s first Black team broadcaster in play-by-play announcer Everett Fitzhugh, and Chanel Keenan is on staff as an intersectionality consultant who focuses on diversity, accessibility and inclusion.

Thirty-one per cent of the Kraken’s staff is female. In the front office, in addition to Granato and Mandrycky, Namita Nandakumar is a hockey operations senior analyst. “We’re not a fully female front office, but I think we prioritize always bringing in the best people available, and sometimes that ended up being a woman and sometimes that ended up being a man,” Mandrycky says.

Ricky Olczyk, Granato’s former on-ice teammate back when they were teenagers in Chicago, is among the reasons Granato was recruited here. “Ron [Francis] knew my relationship with Cammi and the connection with our families, and we were looking to add good quality people, first and foremost,” the assistant GM says. (That’s a common refrain here in Seattle: Good People First.) “We knew her hockey IQ from the ice. She knows the skillset and what to look for, the nuances in the game. She was able to translate that to a particular role from the scouting aspect. And we’ve been really pleased. She always wants to learn, get better, she’s asking tons of questions. She’s very inquisitive, never satisfied.”

When she’s trying to sell the staff on a player she’s been scouting, Mandrycky says Granato brings a “quiet confidence,” that she’s not the table-banging type. But she also brings passion. “I can just envision her, we’re sitting there in the meetings and she’s describing a player and she’s animated and she’s moving her hands — she’s got the Italian going,” Olcyzk says, grinning. “It took her time to come out of her shell, because this is the first time she’s doing something like this and defending her position. But it didn’t take long. It’s been very natural for her, the progression.”

“She’s going to crush it. She could be a GM, she could run a club, if she wanted.”

Granato felt comfortable almost immediately, because of the environment around the team. “The foundation of this is built with so much integrity and so much more inclusion in mind, so you automatically belong. Everyone’s voice is heard here. Everyone’s background is celebrated here,” she says. “It’s so healthy.”

It wasn’t so healthy a couple decades ago, back when Granato herself was playing and working to be treated fairly and equally to her male counterparts. “Looking back on my playing experience, it was a different time than it is today — the way women were treated. We were told we were lucky to be playing, so we didn’t get much equality,” she says. “I wasn’t ungrateful for that experience, but things have changed for the better. And working here in Seattle, it’s unlike any other hockey organization I’ve ever been a part of.”

Given her skillset, it’s natural to wonder what might come next for Granato. “I think she’s got a bright future if she chooses to continue down this path,” Olczyk says, of opportunities in NHL front offices. “She works so darn hard, she’s so competitive, and I think there’s a lot more upside as well.”

Stu Barnes, who was part of the Kraken’s scouting staff until he took a coaching job in the AHL, puts it this way: “She’s an excellent scout and she deserves the position and more.”

Ruggiero adds: “She’s going to crush it. She’s not that far in, but I’m sure she’s going to do extremely well and go as high as she ever wanted. She could be a GM, she could run a club, if she wanted.”

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Granato isn’t getting ahead of herself, even if others are. “I’m really content where I’m at,” she says. “I don’t know how long I’ll do this, I just want to keep getting better and learning more and getting more experience. It’s an incredible way to learn the league, it’s an incredible organization to work with.”

Family no doubt will always come first for Granato. She’s going to call Reese back soon to hear more about that soccer win, and she’s also tabbed to do an on-camera interview about her older brother, Tony, who’ll soon join her in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame — he’s part of the pandemic-delayed 2020 class. Tonight, Granato will be back here ahead of the Kraken’s home opener. The first NHL scout to pull a flag up to the top of the Space Needle is looking forward to it.

“I’m now in a position where I’m happy in the game,” she says.

Photo Credits
Courtesy Seattle Kraken (2); Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images; Tom Hauck/Allsport; Courtesy Seattle Kraken.