NEW YORK – Brian Leetch and Cammi Granato became two of the best American-made hockey players, and they did it by refusing to be confined by traditional roles around the rink.
Leetch, a retired defenceman, wouldn’t let his game be limited to the blue-line. His offensive skills were way too valuable for that. Granato, the greatest U.S. women’s hockey player, couldn’t be held back as a kid and young adult just because she was a girl.
If dreaming of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks was good enough for her four brothers, then it was every bit as important to Cammi to strive for the same thing.
For their contributions of outstanding service to hockey in the United States, Leetch and Granato, along with former New York Rangers public relations director and NHL executive John Halligan and writer, broadcaster and historian Stan Fischler were honoured Wednesday as recipients of the Lester Patrick Award.
It was created in 1966 and is presented annually by the NHL and USA Hockey to honour the memory of Lester Patrick, a former player and longtime coach of the Rangers.
“As a woman, getting this award is even a bigger honour because I am looked at as an equal,” Granato said. “As a kid I was an equal. I never thought of myself any different. I wanted to be a Chicago Blackhawk exactly like my brothers. That was my dream.
“It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that people started pointing out that, ‘Hey, you’re a girl. Why are you playing this game? It’s a man’s game.’ So it’s nice to be honoured for that.”
Leetch is in his second year out of the NHL, though he only officially retired before this season. He is still new to the banquet scene and might never feel comfortable in it. He never sought the spotlight or embraced it when it found him.
“To see him get recognized like this is great,” former Rangers captain Mark Messier said. “He was so humble throughout his whole career that he never wanted to stand out as an individual in anything.”
But Leetch did during his 17 seasons with the Rangers, and while wearing another red, white and blue jersey as a member of USA Hockey.
He joined the national team after one year at Boston College and was a U.S. Olympian in 1988 – along with Cammi’s brother, Tony, who became his teammate again with the Rangers after the Calgary Games.
Leetch went on to win the NHL rookie of the year award, the Norris Trophy twice as the league’s best defenceman, and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994 when the Rangers broke a 54-year drought by capturing the Stanley Cup.
He did it all with an understated manner. Before Wednesday’s presentation, Leetch offered some of his time to the loquacious Fischler, who made his mark in front of a camera and had the room laughing for quite some time with jokes and anecdotes.
Leetch talked for only eight minutes.
“Stan, you made it easy,” Leetch said. “You took all my time. Thanks.”
Leetch was a three-time Olympian (1988, 1998, 2002), winning a silver medal in his final appearance. He also captained the 1996 U.S. squad that won the world cup of hockey.
Another honour is on tap, as the Rangers will raise his No. 2 to the Madison Square Garden rafters in January.
“I loved playing hockey because of what a team sport it was,” Leetch said. “I never felt the need to be singled out when things went well. I never wanted to be the guy who got singled out when things went bad.
“I wanted to make sure I was still playing up to my potential and trying to be the best I could every game.”
Granato, married to former NHL player Ray Ferraro and the mother of 10-month-old son Riley, did that and so much more.
She had other things to be concerned with than just playing the game. When she watched the opening ceremony of the 1988 Winter Olympics, she couldn’t help thinking, ‘How can I get there.’
She joined the U.S. women’s national team in 1990 and played with USA Hockey until shortly before the 2006 Turin Olympics. Granato captained the Americans to the first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in 1998 and to a silver four years later.
“We can all look at her scoring goals, but she is actually a builder,” St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said. “She helped build a sport.”
That initial gold medal win over Canada created great exposure for the female version of the sport and earned her the honour of carrying the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony.
“It’s such an honour that I am receiving this award that is given to me for my contribution to this game, but I look at it as what the game has given to me,” Granato said. “It is the essence of my life.”