U.S. women’s hockey players in tears after legend’s surprise

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About three months ago, the U.S. women’s hockey team took a bonding trip to Nike’s headquarters.

One of those nights in Oregon, after a day full of training and meetings, players had just finished dinner and gathered in the team hotel for what they thought was one last debrief before bed.

Some staff members started talking generally about legacy. Cammi Granato entered the room.

No introduction was necessary. Granato received a standing ovation.

“I was in tears, actually,” said Meghan Duggan, one of four women who have captained the U.S. at the Olympics (Granato, Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz are the others).

Duggan, who has been on the national team for a decade, had never met Granato.

“It wasn’t like she stood up at a podium and delivered a speech to us,” Duggan said. “She just kind of sat and talked to us about her experience.”

The surprise appearance was the latest motivational move from the mind of Reagan Carey, director of the U.S. women’s program since 2010.

It was Carey who in 2013 put together a reported 90-page hardcover book with contributed words and photos from all 41 previous U.S. Olympic players. Carey had three of the 41 hand copies to every 2014 Olympic team member the day they left for Sochi.

Carey has brought in several guest speakers — from Julie Foudy to retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, one of five soldiers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to survive a quadruple amputation.

“We’re really lucky to have a woman like Reagan at the helm of the ship,” forward Hilary Knight said.

Granato has delivered video messages to the team before, but this was her first in-person address. Now 46, Granato lives with her family in Vancouver. (One of Granato’s four brothers, retired NHL All-Star Tony Granatowill coach the U.S. men in PyeongChang.)

“One of the things that stuck with me the most she said was, when you think about the Olympics and the gold-medal game, how big that is and you’re on the world stage, nerves come into play,” said Duggan, a member of the teams that lost gold-medal games to Canada in 2010 and 2014. “You think, oh my gosh, I have to play the best game of my life. Really, what she said was you have to play the team game. Play like you’ve played all year. Play the systems. Play the way that you need to play. Bring your role to the team. Not every single person on the team has to have the best game of their lives.”

Granato spent an hour with women who idolized her that night and joined them for team activities the next day.

“It was almost like she was back in the locker room,” Carey said. “Just a different team.”

Knight, arguably the world’s best player, wears No. 21 in honor of Granato. They are the only U.S. women to wear No. 21 at the Olympics.

Knight has a hockey stick autographed by Granato from when she attended a youth camp. This time, she had Granato sign her journal.

“So I have to hold it pretty closely now,” Knight said.

Forward Brianna Decker had not seen the Hall of Famer since Granato was her coach at an early teen development camp.

“I got the chills,” Decker said. “The greatest player in women’s hockey, I believe, of all time. She was there, right in front of us, sharing her experience.”

As Knight summarized, Granato told the team “this is how we did it” in 1998.

The U.S. won the first Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in Nagano, with Granato the captain and face of the program. They haven’t won any since, losing three times to Canada in the final.

“[Granato] talked about team chemistry, team bonding, generally enjoying the moments together,” Decker said. “She could tell with our group, just by talking to us, that we have that bond and that special unique bond between all of us that can’t be really broken.”

This year’s national team has lived together in residency in Wesley Chapel, Fla, for the last few months. Their next game is Sunday against Canada (NBCSN, 4 p.m. ET), one of eight matchups with their rivals before PyeongChang.

The U.S. has to be considered the Olympic favorite, having won all three world championships since a gut-wrenching overtime loss in the Sochi final.

Maybe that’s why Granato chose not to bring her gold medal to that meeting in Oregon.

“I don’t think any of us would have touched it anyways,” defenseman Monique Lamoureux-Morando said.

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