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  • The most recognizable brother and sister in the history of USA Hockey, Tony is back coaching the national team 20 years after his sister could first represent her country.
By Michael Rosenberg
February 13, 2018

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — You might wonder just how much Olympic hockey really means anymore. Ask the Granato family.

Tony is here, coaching the U.S. men, which is composed of amateurs for the first time since 1994. He has been preparing for this since he was a kid in Downers Grove, Ill., even though he didn’t realize it.

Don and Natalie Granato had five children in seven years (and a sixth a decade later), and Tony was the oldest. When the Granatos left the house, Tony never tied just his shoes. He tied a younger sibling’s, too. He insisted that his brothers and sisters ride their bikes on the sidewalk instead of the street.

Tony’s brother Don says: “We kind of grew up with two dads: My dad and my oldest brother.” His sister Cammi calls Tony “the ringleader of the family … the king of the kids.”

The Granatos had Blackhawks’ season tickets, and four of the kids—Tony, Don, Robbie and Cammi—fell especially hard for the sport. They played in their basement, in their garage, on nearby ponds and at public rinks: Three boys, one girl, all in love with hockey, all dreaming their hockey dreams.

The kids would close their eyes at night and imagine themselves on the U.S. Olympic team. Tony became so good that he was invited to work out at the Olympic training center in Colorado. The Granatos went out there. When they got home, he taught his siblings all the training methods he had learned.

Tony wore No. 21 because Stan Mikita, the Blackhawks legend, wore No. 21.

Cammi wore No. 21 because Tony wore it.

Tony is six years older than Cammi, and he knew what Cammi did not: there was no women’s Olympic hockey team. When she found out, she adjusted her goals—upward.

“Her dream was to play on the Chicago Blackhawks because there was no women’s Olympics (team),” Tony says. “She didn’t realize until she was probably 10 that she couldn’t play in the NHL.”

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In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of people didn’t even want her playing peewee. There were no other girls on her team and no girls on the other teams. She would enter Downer’s Grove Ice Arena in suburban Illinois, and while all the boys on her team went straight to their locker room, she had to change in the girls’ bathroom. Eventually they let her use a utility closet.

As she put on her gear, Cammi could hear the snarky comments from figure skaters. When she walked out, she felt the stares from their parents: Look at that girl, playing a boy’s sport. She did not understand. Tony played hockey because he loved it and she would play hockey because she loved it. She played with the boys because that was the only way to play.

Cammi was a shy girl who felt most comfortable on the ice, but she had to be careful. One opponent threatened to break her collarbone. Cammi’s coach asked if she still wanted to play. She did. He told her to keep her head up.

At another tournament, the puck dropped and within seconds, a boy on the other team cross-checked her. She suffered a mild concussion and had to miss the rest of the tournament. The boy came up to her after the game.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My dad made me do that.”

When Cammi was 11 or 12, her mother sat her in their living room, by the front door, the room where the kids rarely hung out. The room was for adults, and this was an adult conversation. Natalie gently explained to Cammi that she was nearing the age where there were no opportunities for girls in hockey. It was probably time to choose another sport.

Cammi ran upstairs, cried, and said she would never quit hockey.

***

She quit hockey. Not right away. But she quit in high school, when the boys got too big and the checking got too fierce. In 1988, she was 16 and retired, and Tony was 24 and an Olympian. During the Opening Ceremony in Calgary, Cammi tugged at her mom’s jacket and said, “I need to do this.”

She went to Providence College, which had a women’s hockey team. She played for the first-ever United States women’s national team. She won a silver medal at the 1990 World Championships. She was attending a hockey camp in 1993 when she got word: women’s hockey would be added to the Olympics in 1998.

“It was amazing,” she says. “I will never forget hearing that news. Now you can actually go after your dream.”

She went after it hard, and by 1998, Cammi was the star of the first U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team. Tony played for the San Jose Sharks at the time, and even though the NHL went on hiatus so players could compete in the Olympics for the first time, Cammi wasn’t sure if he would make it to Nagano, Japan to watch her. But he was sure. He sat in the stands and watched as America fell in love with his little sister.

 “I remember being so happy that he could watch me,” she says. “I watched him for so many years. And he was so into it. It made him happy, and (that) made me happy.”

Tony had to go home before the gold-medal game, to practice with the Sharks. The Americans beat Canada, 3-1, for the gold. Cammi burst into tears on the podium. She hugged the rest of her family. And then she found a phone in an arena hallway so she could call Tony. She was still in uniform.

Tony is 53 now. He has been an Olympian and an NHL All-Star. He has played in the Stanley Cup Finals, skated on a line with Wayne Gretzky and been an NHL head coach. But he says, “Probably my greatest hockey moment ever was to see my sister get a gold medal.”

***

Real progress is so pervasive that we almost forget it happened. We turn on light bulbs so often, we don’t think about the world before Edison. Women can walk into rinks today without people assuming their hockey bag belongs to their brother.

Some of the women on this year’s Olympic hockey team don’t really think about how hard it was for little Cammi Granato. That is her gift to them.

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The Granato kids are all adults now, but it doesn’t matter: Tony will forever be the big brother, looking after them. He will call during his commute to check in: “Hey, how are you doing? Everything good?” In 2005, when his brother Don got Hodgkin’s disease, Tony spent so much time at the hospital that Don told him: “Tony, you gotta go home.” Tony refused.

“He felt more pain than me,” Don says now. “It was not hard to see that.”

Cammi became a star of sorts after those 1998 Olympics. She ate Wheaties with David Letterman and fired slap shots with Regis Philbin, She is now married to former NHL star Ray Ferraro. They live in Vancouver.

Tony coaches the Wisconsin Badgers and Don is an assistant with the Blackhawks. They remain as tight as they were when they shared a roof.

Last summer, the Granatos held a family reunion in Geneva, Wis. Tony pulled Cammi aside, and in his nonchalant way, he told her he had some news: He had been chosen as head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team. She did not see that coming. Now Cammi Granato is so proud of her brother Tony for doing something she didn’t think he would have a chance to do.

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