Dream On

‘If You Can See It You Can Be It’ Philosophy Helps Fuel Growth Of The Game

In the stillness of an empty Hockey Canada Center, hours before an Olympic contest that would captivate audiences around the world, Jim Johannson contemplated the impact that the 2010 gold-medal game between the United States and Canada could have on potential hockey players back home.

Before long the eyes of the world would be on Vancouver and the U.S. team that was one step away from completing an unlikely rise to the top. All that stood in their way was a powerful Canadian team that the underdog Yanks had already beaten in the preliminary round of what had been hailed as the greatest hockey tournament in history.

Players once known only within the relatively closed-knit hockey community had suddenly became household names, rivaling Eruzione, Craig and Broten for a sacred spot in the American sports psyche. More than that, they were suddenly the inspiration for a new generation of potential players. And that, more than anything, made Johannson smile.

"I hope that families will watch the [gold-medal] game and boys and girls turn to their moms and dads and say 'I want to play hockey,'" said Johannson, himself a two-time Olympian who would go on to serve as the assistant executive director of hockey operations until his passing in 2018.

"The game sells itself and hopefully kids, wherever they are, will say 'that looks pretty neat - I'd like to try that game.'"

It's a game plan that has propelled the growth of the game dating back more than 40 years when a group of no-name college hockey players shocked the world in Lake Placid, N.Y., on their way to inspiring the next generation of American hockey players.

Two of them lived in the Chicago suburbs where Tony Granato and his sister Cammi, along with their brothers Don and Rob, would wage epic hockey battles in the driveway and basement of their Downers Grove, Ill., home. 

"In those games, we were Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito and Keith Magnuson. And then we became Mike Eruzione, Mark Johnson, Jim Craig, Jack O'Callahan and Mike Ramsey. The game has turned from pro hockey to Olympic hockey and Team USA," recalled Tony Granato, whose hockey dreams once fueled by his hometown Chicago Blackhawks were suddenly transformed by the heroics of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team.

"The memories are just as good in those games and those times as they were when I was playing in the Olympics or in college or in the NHL."

The exposure that comes with Olympic hockey taking center stage every four years opens the game up to a new generation of hockey fans, many of who know very little about the game.

Despite a 15-year NHL career and numerous appearances with U.S. National and Olympic Teams, one of Granato's fondest hockey memories was sitting in the Big Hat Arena in Nagano, Japan watching Cammi and her 19 teammates win the first gold medal in women's Olympic hockey in 1998. 

"That was a pretty significant moment because of all of the years, my family, including Cammi, were watching me," said Granato, who will join his sister in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2020.

"It was the first time for me to be a spectator, and be on the outside cheering for my sister winning what was the first ever women's gold medal was a special moment for me and my entire family."

Back home in living rooms all around the United States, playing the game was suddenly opened up to a new generation of young girls who never knew hockey was a possibility.

Just as the "Miracle on Ice" inspired what would later come to be known as the "greatest generation" of NHL players, Granato and her teammates opened the door for females of all ages to find a league of their own. 

"We really did something historical," recalled Jenny Potter, who would go on to skate in four Olympics and will become just the seventh woman enshrined in Eveleth, Minn. 

"And from that moment in time, we built the foundation to the future of girls' hockey and to inspire them to be great and inspire them to know that there's opportunities out there and you should reach for them."

Among them was Kendall Coyne Schofield, who first met Cammi Granato at a girls' hockey camp in their home state. Just as she was motivated by watching her fellow Illinois native receive her gold medal in 1998, the Palos Heights, Ill., native has done the same for the next generation after she and her teammates would return to the top of the Olympic podium 20 years later in PyeongChang, South Korea.

"You need to see it to be it," is a mantra Coyne Schofield has repeated many times as she continues to kick down new doors for aspiring young hockey players.

One of her many accomplishments came not long after winning Olympic gold as she went stride-for-stride with the best in the world in the fastest skating competition during the NHL All-Star festivities in San Jose, Calif. That one trip around the SAP Center ice in a blazing 14.346 seconds would change the state of women's hockey forever.

"Obviously, I was a little nervous, but I knew it was a moment that was going to break a lot of barriers and a moment that would change the perception of our game and show support to our game," she would say afterward.

And she wasn't done there. Coyne Schofield would also break down more barriers when she joined fellow U.S. Olympian AJ Mleczko and Kate Scott as the first-ever all-woman broadcasting team in NHL history. 

Just as Granato inspired her more than 20 years ago, Coyne Schofield takes her status as a role model very seriously. Having checked off the vast majority of boxes on her own personal goals list, she is motivated by what the future could be for the next generation of women's hockey.

"As someone nearing the end of my career, that's my purpose,' said the two-time Olympian who shows no signs of slowing down before the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

"My goal is to open doors and create opportunities for the next generation. I've already accomplished my childhood dream of winning a gold medal, and that doesn't mean I don't want to win another one, but it's more impactful and more meaningful to create opportunities, to use my voice to leave this game better than when I entered it."

The next chapter in the history of opening up the game is to welcome more young boys and girls from diverse backgrounds. Historically there have been pockets of diversity hockey programs, in places such as Detroit, New York City's Harlem neighborhood and Washington, D.C., but thanks to recent efforts from the NHL and USA Hockey, there is a growing emphasis on opening the game up to people of color.

In Flint, Mich., where he has been introducing young players of color to the game for more than a decade, Rico Phillips knows those opportunities are long overdue.

"Over my years of playing and officiating I saw very little diversity. And that made me want to start a hockey program in the inner city," said the Flint native who was honored with the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award in 2019. "I just wanted people to understand that hockey is a lot of fun and they should join the fun with us."

The first step comes with creating an environment where everyone feels welcome. That starts with ridding the game of racist and hurtful language and actions. From there it's about creating opportunities for more young players of color to excel in the game.

It's something O'Ree has spent a lifetime working toward, starting with breaking the color barrier as the first black hockey player in the NHL and later as an ambassador for the game.

O'Ree believes the most impactful change will likely come as more black players and players of color get the opportunity to move into more prominent positions within the game itself.

"There's room there for coaches, managers, linesmen, referees. Just set your goal and work towards it," O'Ree says as part of his message to young boys and girls he meets around the country.

"Those players of color are there because they have the skills and abilities to be there. If they didn't have the skills they wouldn't be there. They just want to be accepted as another player and this is the way I think it should be."

 

Issue: 
2020-10

Poll

Best hockey not played on ice?
Bubble hockey
17%
Air hockey
11%
Street hockey
57%
Video game hockey
15%
Total votes: 125