Tuesday, June 22, 2010

v2, d102: "You play ball like a GIRL!!!"

Or "puck," as the case may be.

The Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2010 class of inductees today, and for the first time ever, the "Players" category included women. Two of them. Canadian Angela James and American Cammi Granato. (The only other Player inductee was Dino Cicarelli, who despite scoring over 600 NHL goals was on his eighth year of eligibility) I kept reading what a weak year this was for first-year-eligible players, so guesses were flying around the Internet as to which less-than-worthy former NHLers might get the nod. Very few people even mentioned the national heroes of the women's game, so I think today's announcement came as a surprise to a lot of people. (Also, the exclusion of former coach etc Pat Burns was a surprise to many, and not a pleasant one)

Granato and James. They were kind of the same influence in the only two powers in women's hockey. Angels James was the elder stateswoman for an entire generation of Canadian hockey players; Cammi Granato was the same for a generation of Americans. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call them the two most dominant players in the history of women's ice hockey. (I'd throw Haley Wickenhiser in there someday) There aren't enough credible players in the world to put together a solid professional women's league (I know Canada has or had a very small league at one point) so the loftiest goal a female hockey player can aspire to is Olympic glory. (Even that's in doubt; as the rest of the world refuses to close the gap between themselves and the Big Two, there's really not much in the way of competition. American players also have a competitive NCAA program; I'm not sure what Canadian players play for) James and Granato, however, were the faces of the women's game even before the Olympics had hockey for women.

Unfortunately, Angela James never got to play in the Olympics, but she won just about everything else there was to win. She's also the only African-Canadian to captain a national team. They called her the "Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey."

Granato never received quite the fanfare that James did, mostly because she was in the U.S. and not Canada. But for many, she was the one who caused folks to start taking women's hockey seriously in America. I guarantee that just about any woman currently playing the USA Hockey program has idolized Granato at one point or another. About a week ago, I wrote a guest blog from fictional character Slapshot, who briefly recounted her reaction when her parents explained she'd never grow up to play for the Blackhawks. That story is actually Granato's. (Her older brother, Tony, went on to have a great NHL playing career and has some moderate success in coaching as well) While James campaigned all of her career for women's hockey in the Olympics, it was Granato who actually got the chance to realize the dream, leading the American women to the first ever gold medal in the event in 1998. (Last gold we've won in hockey) In 2006, in a controversial move, Granato was left off the roster, and the U.S. finished a humiliating third. (And yes, for the U.S., third in women's hockey is humiliating) I'll never forget how pissed off analyst Ray Ferraro was following the U.S. loss to Sweden (I think it was Sweden): "I am going to admit my bias right up front: Cammi Granato, the long-time captain, team leader, and best player for Team U.S.A., is my wife. That said..." Ferraro posited that the lack of Granato-leadership cost the American team a chance for the gold. Very, very strong chance he's right.

I've long thought these two ladies were worthy of admission to the HHOF. After all, it's not an NHL Hall of Fame, but a Hockey Hall of Fame. I was also pleased a couple years back when the HHOF was getting a bit more generous toward former Soviet superstars who never played an NHL game in their life. (Tretiak had been in there for awhile, but a few others have trickled in more recently) I hope that this doesn't become a mandate, however, like "Every year, we will include 3 men and 1 woman," because I think that cheapens the honor that these two ladies have earned.

I really hope I get to go to Toronto to visit the HHOF someday. At one point, they even had a couple of Wichita Thunder goodies in there. (Do Jackson and Jobe still hold the record for fastest 50 goals?) Add it to the list of things I'm going to do once I get either rich or famous ;-)

(All of this, by the way, is not to take anything away from Cicarelli's induction. Congrats, Dino! Only second former Lightning player to be enshrined in the Hall, and well-earned!)