Born in the USA

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Day One is a Players’ Tribune series where athletes sit down with the people who’ve been in their life since the beginning, and discuss their journey. This installment features siblings Tony and Cammi Granato. Tony played in the NHL for 13 seasons with the Rangers, Kings and Sharks. Cammi won the gold medal with the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team at the ’98 Winter Olympics, and a silver medal in 2002. She’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Tony:
I clearly remember this one moment: I was at a Chicago Blackhawks game with my father at the Madhouse on Madison. I was maybe five years old. This was 1970. And I was leafing through the gameday program when I got to the Blackhawks roster. It had the birthplaces listed for all the players. I turned to my dad in complete disbelief. “All these guys are from Canada?” I said. I was so mad. I didn’t understand why all the players weren’t from Chicago. In my mind, Stan Mikita was just a guy from my town. I went down the list and it was Canada, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Canada. Nobody was born in the USA. So I told my father, “Well, I’m going to be the first one.”

Cammi:
I’m seven years younger than Tony. So I was born the year after he made that comment. Being the youngest at the time, I was like the guinea pig for him and my other two brothers, Robby and Donny. Some of my earliest memories are playing “knee hockey” in the basement with them. It was no-holds-barred. The unspoken rule that my brothers came up with was that if I wanted to play, I wasn’t allowed to run upstairs to tell mom if I got hurt.

Tony:
The beautiful thing was that our parents allowed us to beat up the basement as much as we wanted. That was like our domain down there. It was this unfinished space with nothing but some carpet and a little window up in the corner that we covered with cardboard. We put padding up on the walls so it would be like hockey boards. And then the puck was some kind of special tape ball — we took toilet paper and Kleenex and then taped over it. How did we make the nets? I don’t remember.

Cammi:
Football goal posts! One of you guys must have dragged them home from … somewhere. And we flipped them upside down. We were like little scavengers. We stacked up some old mattresses for benches. Then we put down some blue and red tape for the lines. I remember the goalies had masks, but this was the ’80s so it was like the Jason mask from Friday the 13th. And then before the game we’d have to sing the national anthem. That was like Donny’s rule. He was the organized one. He made everything very official.

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Tony:
The great thing about the basement was that the walls weren’t really sturdy. They were this plywood-type material and they had some give to them, so if you checked somebody they’d rattle like the old NHL boards. I just love to imagine Mom making dinner upstairs, hearing this “woooom” sound over and over and listening to make sure no one was crying. Poor Cammi. The only rule we had was that you never, ever tattled. Under any circumstances.

Cammi:
I remember many times when I would get slashed in the shin or checked too hard and I’d start going up the stairs, and one of the boys would stop me and say, “Cammi! If you tell mom, you’re never coming down here again!” They would always talk me down from the stairs. I wanted to keep playing so I never actually went up.

Tony:
We were bruising each other up out of love though. Half the time Donny and I would get into fights midway through the game and it would turn into a wrestling match for five minutes until somebody tapped out. Come to think of it, we didn’t really have many neighbor kids coming over to play. I think maybe they were intimidated by us.

You have to remember, at that time, girls did not play hockey. It was just unheard of.

Cammi:
We were known as the Hockey Family. You have to remember, at that time, girls did not play hockey. It was just unheard of. My mom assumed I’d be a figure skater like my older sister. We had a field across the street from our house and the firemen would flood it in the winter to make an ice rink. I started skating out there when I was three years old. Mom even bought me little pom-poms for my figure skates. But I kept skating off to the other side of the ice where the boys were playing hockey. I did it four times before Mom was like, “What the heck are you doing, Cammi?” And she says I pointed and said, “I want to do that.”

Tony:
That’s just what Mom and Dad needed — another kid to take to hockey practice. Pre cell phone days. Pre GPS. Just a constant shuttle to and from Chicago hockey rinks.

Cammi:
I remember Dad would wake me up at 5:30 in the morning and I’d stand in the living room watching cartoons while he dressed me. “Okay, give me your left leg.” And he’d strap my shin guards on. I’d come pre-dressed so I wouldn’t have to change with the boys. Those early mornings with Dad were some of my favorite memories.

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Tony:
Nobody had a sister that played hockey. But Cammi was just … one of us. Everybody we hung around with was used to it. We didn’t treat her any differently. We beat on her like one of the boys, you know? But then I remember I was playing Bantam hockey and she must have been a Squirt, and somebody at the rink said, “Hey, that’s weird that your sister plays hockey.” And I’m like, “What the hell do you mean it’s weird? It’s Cammi!” I got so mad.

Cammi:
It was fine until I was about 10 years old. Then I started to hear the whispers. I’d walk into the rink with my hockey bag over my shoulder and people were staring at me. The parents were worse than the kids. I changed in a broom closet across from my team’s locker room. Like literally they kept the brooms and buckets in there. The figure skating girls would come in and shut the lights off and tease me. But honestly, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to change in the girl’s bathroom with the figure skaters. I was a hockey player.

Tony:
Oh, the parents were definitely worse than the kids. The problem was that Cammi was better than their sons. Instead of looking at her as inspiring — back in that era — they were uncomfortable about it. I actually worried that we had steered her in the wrong direction. We tried to talk her into playing soccer at one point. Yeah … no chance.

Cammi:
We were obsessed with the game. Remember Donny used to tape all of Gretzky’s goals and then splice them together on VHS? I don’t know how he even did it. It was the ’80s version of YouTube. You guys used to bring home all kinds of stuff — weight vests, the speeding skating slide boards. It was like we were running our own training camp in the basement.

Tony:
Cammi was still competing with the boys in PeeWees. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, This is amazing, but where’s this gonna go? There was no “girls hockey.” There was barely boys hockey.

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Cammi:
I’ll never forget this moment. I was maybe 12 years old, and the boys were starting to get a lot bigger than me. Dad was getting really worried that I was going to get hurt. I skated into a corner to get a puck and a kid just crushed me from behind. I went headfirst into the boards. And Dad was standing right there, watching at the glass. I was hurting so bad, but I got to my feet and skated to the bench. Because I couldn’t give him a reason to make me quit.

Tony:
Kids now don’t understand what it was like back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Women’s college hockey barely existed. Even for the boys, there was no clear path to the NHL for an American kid. We were clueless. I remember hearing about the 1980 Winter Olympics and thinking, Oh? I didn’t even know Olympic hockey existed. This is cool. I’ll never forget sitting on the floor of our living room watching Team USA vs. the Soviet Union. I’m thinking, Where did they get these American guys? I’ve never heard of them. And then when they actually won, oh my God. It changed everything. I thought, Hey maybe if I work hard enough, that can be me.

I’d walk into the rink with my hockey bag over my shoulder and people were staring at me.

Cammi:
I was on the ice with my team during the Miracle on Ice broadcast. A voice came over the loudspeaker and announced the score, and it was total pandemonium. The whole practice stopped. We all threw our sticks in the air and jumped in a big pile.

Tony:
After that day, every game of knee hockey in the basement was USA vs. Soviet Union. When USA won, we’d yell, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” and jump into a pile.

Cammi:
Donny stenciled the American flag onto his Jason mask.

Tony:
A year later, when I was 16, I got invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, for USA Junior Camp. Crazy.

Cammi:
It was a Granato family affair. We all piled into our TransVan and did the road trip together. A TransVan was like a giant camper. I don’t think they make them anymore. There were no seatbelts! It was just like benches in the back. We played hand hockey in the aisle while dad drove.

Granato Twizzler Pull

Tony:
Sixteen hours in the TransVan. Everything we did was a competition. We even had Twizzler fights.

Cammi:
You’d hold out your arm and the other person would whip you with a Twizzler as hard as they could. The first person to give up lost.

Tony:
This sounds crazy when you say it out loud now, but it’s just what we did. I was toughening you all up. Haha!

Cammi:
Tony used to stuff us all in a closet when we had a babysitter. He’d say, “Don’t say a word! Be completely silent!” And then he’d tell the babysitter that we were missing.

Tony:
I don’t remember that. No comment.

Cammi:
You remember the baseball story though.

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Tony:
I do. Like I said, I was toughening you up.

Cammi:
I’m six years old. Tony is 12. He’s like, “Cammi! Gotta practice my fastball. Come on.” He gives me a catcher’s mitt and has me crouch down like 10 feet away from him. He’s using real baseballs. I’m six! So of course he hits me right in the stomach. Wham. I go down on my back. I can’t breathe. I’ll never forget looking up at the blue sky. And then I see his big head looming over me. “You’re not hurt! Get up! You can’t tell Mom!”

Tony:
You know, my memory isn’t so good these days.

Cammi:
Tony was such a sh*t disturber. But he was awesome. He was the big brother that always looked out for us. He showed us that we could make it. When we got to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Tony went off with the team and the rest of us kids walked around the facility, just in awe. They had a big Olympic track and we all went down and ran on it and pretended we won the gold medal.

Tony:
It was a little preview of what was to come. That trip inspired us all.

Cammi:
When we won the gold in ’98 in Nagano, they put the medal around my neck and I looked up into the stands and saw all you guys smiling, and it was just … wow. The medal was so heavy. It was everything that I dreamed about. But so many times it seemed like it would never be a possibility. It was surreal.

Tony:
How many times did we win the gold medal in the basement? Hundreds of times.

Cammi:
When I see the tape of the medal ceremony now, it’s like, “Is that really me?”

Tony:
I can guarantee you there were hundreds of little girls who are now going off to play college hockey who watched that on TV back in ’98 and said, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a hockey player.”

Cammi:
And then their brother said, “You’re in goal,” and shot a tape-ball at their forehead.

Tony:
Look at you now! All those games in the basement paid off.

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