TORONTO - Thanks to Angela James and Cammi Granato, women are finally in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But the breakthrough moment comes at a time when female players are still defending their game.
"It just comes with the territory because we're used to doing that, we're used to defending ourselves," Granato said Monday. "I had to defend myself from the time when I was in a rink when I was a little kid and people wondered 'Why is she playing?'
"We just have to keep repeating ourselves over and over. ... But this helps, I tell you, being here. Having this committee and this Hall accept us really helps."
Some hockey observers had wondered if the day would ever come. But on Monday morning, James and Granato accepted their rings with former NHLer Dino Ciccarelli and builder Jim Devellano.
The late Daryl (Doc) Seaman, one of the founders of the Calgary Flames, was also inducted.
The Hall of Fame established separate induction criteria for females this year, paving the way for James and Granato to receive plaques alongside the game's greats. It was a proud moment not only for both women, but for many others involved with the sport they love.
"I think it's an historic night and I think it's great for hockey at all levels," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "Both Angela and Cammi are inspirational, they're pioneers once again. What they've done in the game to this point has been terrific and I think they're great role models for other girls and women looking to devote themselves to this game."
Just months ago, James was dismayed when International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge sounded a warning bell about women's hockey during the Vancouver Games. Canada and the U.S. outscored their opposition 88-4 during the Olympics, prompting Rogge to say: "We cannot continue without improvement."
"I just don't understand why they have to justify themselves, how good they are," said James. "They've worked really hard to get to where they are, they've made a lot of sacrifices. We should just embrace it. . . .
"Women's hockey is still in its infancy. We really have to understand that when men's hockey started off, there were dominant countries and the other countries slowly picked up—no different than even today in the juniors."
The high point of Granato's career came while James was experiencing one her most trying periods in the game. The Toronto native was left off the Canadian team when women's hockey made its debut at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, an event where Granato and the U.S. team won gold with a victory over Canada.
Granato thinks James's omission played a big part in the American victory.
"We were shocked, absolutely shocked, and couldn't understand," said Granato. "She had been their clutch player forever. When you're going into the biggest tournament of your life, why wouldn't she be there? It's an advantage to Team USA right there and it's unfortunate for her because she had really trailblazed for so long and led her team for so long.
"It's just an injustice that she never got to be in an Olympics."
Asked Monday if she ever understood the decision, James quickly replied: "Never, not at all."Ciccarelli also overcame long odds to claim his spot in the Hall, having never been drafted by a NHL team. He was a scoring star with the OHL's London Knights, but NHL teams were scared off when he suffered a broken leg in his final year of junior.
Eventually, he would sign with the Minnesota North Stars as a free agent and embark on a career that saw him score 608 goals in the NHL.
One of his great regrets is never winning a championship. He got a small taste of what it might be like on Sunday night while having dinner with a number of other Hall of Famers.
"They surprised our party and they brought the Stanley Cup over," said Ciccarelli. "We were taking a group picture with all the guys, and I still feel like I can't touch it because I didn't win it. But Glenn Anderson said, 'Dino, grab that thing and put it over your head.' We were all holding on.
"I said, 'Yeah, I'm not comfortable.' He said, 'Hey, you're in the Hall now—it doesn't matter.' So that kind of made me feel really special."
Devellano won the Stanley Cup seven times during a long career as an executive. As general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, he acquired Ciccarelli and waged some off-ice battles with the feisty forward.
"He was a little bit of an underdog with a broken leg and not getting drafted," said Devellano. "He always felt like he had to stick up for himself and he was right. . . . Dino represented himself, and him and I would get into some pretty heated contract discussions.
"But at the end of the day, that never bothered me. I admired him for fighting for himself."
Women's hockey has spent decades fighting for its place. The first world championship wasn't held until 1990, but the sport now features other tournaments like the Four Nations Cup, which is being held this week in Newfoundland and Labrador.
On their Hall of Fame plaques, James is described as a "pioneer of the women's game" while Granato is labelled a "groundbreaker in the truest sense of the word."
It's been a long time coming.
"I'm not looking at how long it's been," said James. "I'm just looking at today that it is here. I think we should celebrate that and not worry about the past.
"There has to be a first for everything and this is it."
Note: Longtime Montreal-based sportswriter Marc De Foy received the Elmer Ferguson Award for hockey journalism. Former Washington Capitals play-by-play man Ron Weber accepted the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster.