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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Cammi not ready for NHL, yet

    By AL STRACHAN -- At The Olympics
    NAGANO --  American Cammi Granato was given a chance to become the first woman forward to play professional hockey when the New York Islanders invited her to training camp last year, The Toronto Sun has learned.
     However, after a summer of deliberation, she turned down the offer - for now.
      She may accept it next fall when the Islanders open training camp for the 1998-99 season, but at the moment, she isn't thinking about it.
     "Really, right now, I'm going to the Olympics and that's what I want to do," the 27-year-old forward said yesterday. "It's so fulfilling to me. It doesn't matter what happens to my career until after this."
     A few months ago, however, the matter was constantly on her mind. Her brother Tony plays for the San Jose Sharks and even when she was a little girl, Cammi told everyone that her dream in life was to play hockey for the Chicago Blackhawks.
     The Blackhawks, however, didn't ask her. But Islanders general manager Mike Milbury did. It wasn't a contract offer, just a training camp tryout with the idea that if everything worked well, she could start in the Islanders' farm system.
     She "toyed with idea all summer," and spent a lot of time talking to those she trusted - her brother, U.S. women's team coach Ben Smith and Milbury himself. She weighed all the pros and cons and finally said no.
     "I decided after a long and thoughtful summer that it wasn't something I needed to do at that point because of what I was trying to accomplish with the Olympics," she said.
     "I didn't want to give up the idea of what women's hockey is. Our sport is trying to compete with other sports and at that point, going to the Islanders, it scared me a little bit to think how much the media would be around.
     "I was a bit hesitant from that standpoint, but just to go and say I went, and get a jersey would have been a huge honor. It was exactly what I wanted to do when I was a kid. To think that could actually come true, it was bizarre and it was exciting."
     Just from those few sentences, it's easy to see how Granato wavered back and forth.
     "It was huge honor for me to know that Mike Milbury actually was serious," she said. "And he was serious. He wanted basically to give a woman a chance to see how she fared out there with the men.
     "I have such respect for Mike Milbury for actually being serious about it. He said after two days of skating, he'd pretty much get an idea of where I would stand.
     "I had no plans of playing pro hockey at that point. I know my size and my talent and playing in a man's game is a whole different ball game. I'm 140 pounds and I don't know many guys in the NHL who weigh that much."
     This would not be a case similar to that of goaltender Manon Rheaume, who is now on the Canadian Olympic team. She was in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization but, as a goaltender, was not subject to checking.
     "It took a lot of courage to do what she did, going out there taking shots like that," Granato said. "But to actually get out there on the playing surface with the men? I don't think that's been done in too many sports - no contact sports. That's scary."
     Even so, after talking to all those close to her, she almost gave it a crack. "Tony was right into it," she said. "He was supporting me, saying, 'You've really got to do this.' He's always thinking diplomatically, saying, `You can do so much for women's hockey. You can open up so many people's eyes.'
     "I was happy to have that support and I was happy that my parents, my boyfriend, everybody was supporting me."
     But eventually, her Olympic coach pushed her in the other direction. "Coach Smith played a really important role for me at that point," she said. "His judgment meant a lot to me. I didn't want to get sidetracked from what I wanted to do."
     And at the moment, that's to win an Olympic gold.
     After that, could it be the Islanders? "It's not on my mind right now, but who knows what happens later?" she said.