Kraken professional scout Cammi Granato didn't set out to create a grant program for young female hockey players just because of the financial impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on athletes' families.

In fact, the discussions leading to Granato's new 21 Grants Program — named after the No. 21 she wore in a Hockey Hall of Fame career — began roughly a year before COVID-19 struck and her intent is for recipients to have displayed leadership and team-first traits as much as anything.

Still, when it came time for Granato to sift through roughly 270 nationwide applications and pick 21 players ages 4 to 12 who'd receive $500 apiece, the tales she read of pandemic-related hardship kept her awake nights with indecision.

"I wanted to read every single word that every person put in because I think they deserve it," Granato said of applications filled out by parents from 31 states. "So, I did. I had a really hard time of knowing who to pick. But then in the end, I realized that I did have to go with the ones I felt could use it the most. Just by their description of why they needed the money, or why it would be important to have the grant."

The result was a well-timed Christmas gift for young players from 15 states — including one from Washington — whose families have largely struggled during a COVID-ridden year in which safety shutdowns kept many off the ice.

"I really took it seriously as I want to help everybody," Granato said. "But this year, especially, and in general, the families I felt were most in need had some financial hardship or a family hardship."

Granato was raised in an Illinois household of six hockey-playing children, including her former NHL All-Star brother, Tony. She went on to a record-setting collegiate career and was the captain for the United States when it won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, getting elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010.

But Granato also knows firsthand how staggering fees and equipment costs can weigh on parents struggling to keep kids in the game — especially with all that has gone on this past year.

Hockey registration and travel fees can easily surpass $1,000 annually even for the youngest of players. New equipment can cost thousands as well, often forcing players to buy second-hand or wear hand-me-downs from older family members.

"I think financially, there are families that have multiple children," Granato said. "There are single moms and people that have lost their jobs. And there are people that have had loss in their life, or some illness in the family."

The stories Granato read about "really resonated with me a lot" to where she added three more grants to the initially-envisioned 21 to include as many families as possible. She and her mother covered the costs of one additional grant each while Kraken pro scout Dave Hunter donated for a third.

Besides the $500 — meant to go toward any hockey-related fees — the 24 selected players also received a four-piece equipment package donated by the Pure Hockey retail company, the NHL and the NHLPA with an approximate value of $300. Their coach also will get a one-year subscription to The Coaches Site, worth $120, to gain access to team drills and other coaching insights that can help their team.

Granato set the program up in partnership with FlipGive, a Toronto-based company used by 50,000 teams and 400,000 families across North America to raise money online for youth sports squads. She met with the company's representatives last year in British Columbia — where FlipGive has several fundraiser member teams — after staging her annual hockey tournament there.

"Our goal is to make sports as accessible as possible for every kid so no kid gets left behind," said Sam Menard, vice-president of growth for FlipGive. "And as we sort of continued to talk to her, we had this shared interest in promoting the game of hockey — which we know can be an expensive sport at the best of times."

The initial grant recipients included a 9-year-old from the Seattle area that plays in the Western Washington Female Hockey Association. Menard said she and other recipients were told they'd won earlier this month in a surprise Zoom call to their families.

For now, the identities of grant recipients have not been disclosed given the sensitive nature of some of their hardships. But Menard and Granato said they hope some will give permission in coming weeks to have their stories shared.

Granato hopes to keep raising money to expand the program's scope, given the volume of applications seen in this initial try. Whether an expansion will involve more grants annually or various rounds of them per year is still being worked out.

But the need is obviously there during this ongoing pandemic. And Granato said she figures it will still be there long after the country finally sheds COVID-19 and the economy rebounds to where it once was.

"I know that I was very fortunate to have the opportunities to play that I did," Granato said. "And I want every girl out there to have the chances that were given to me. If they want to play, they should be able to."

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