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Canadian women's hockey team member Geraldine Heaney, pictured with her Olympic gold medal in 2002, joined Angela James and Cammie Granato as the first women to be named to the IIHF Hall of Fame's players' category. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press) )

A trio of women's hockey pioneers made history on Thursday as Geraldine Heaney, Angela James and Cammie Granato were inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame (IIHF).

They become the first women players to enter the IIHF's Hall of Fame and join a class that includes former Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux, Russian star Igor Larionov and the first French player ever to skate in the NHL, Philippe Bozon.

Long-time U.S. coach and executive Art Berglund, a native of Fort Francis, Ont., was also inducted as a builder, while former referee Juraj Okolicany of Slovakia earned the Paul Loicq Award for his contributions to the game.

Heaney, 40, is now the head coach of the women's team at the University of Waterloo and feels that the inclusion of women in the Hall of Fame will only continue to help the game grow for women on a global level

"It's great because now we're finally being recognized not only in our own country but worldwide," said Heaney. "There are so many young girls playing hockey now, it's amazing.

"I really feel we need to promote the game worldwide, not just in Canada, and inducting women now should help that."

The defenceman played on seven world championship teams for Canada in the 1990s, was a member of Canada's first Olympic women's hockey team at Nagano in 1998 and won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002.

As she spoke at the ceremony at the IIHF men's world championship, Heaney also dedicated her induction to her sister Catherine, who died from cancer two weeks ago.

"She was a big hockey fan and a big supporter for me. " said Heaney. "This is for you Cath."

Catherine, just one year older than her sister, supported Heaney throughout her career.

"It still doesn't seem real," she said. "At things like this, she would always be here."

Granato, a native of Downers Grove, Ill., enjoyed a 15-year career during which she set women's hockey records with 54 goals and 96 points. She was also a member of the first Olympic gold medal team in 1998.

For Granato, 37, who now lives and runs a business in Vancouver, enjoying a career in hockey was simply a matter of great timing.

"The women's game is young and I think it was the right time," she said. "I was fortunate to be playing at the right time."

James, 43, is currently the sports co-ordinator at Seneca College in Toronto and is widely considered to be the first real star of women's hockey.

"It's something that's started now, and from now on a lot more women will be inducted into the Hall of Fame," said James. "Its just a building step for the future of our sport.

"It's not female or male. It's hockey. It's our game."

James scored 22 goals in 20 games at the first four world championships — including 11 at the inaugural tournament in Ottawa.

Women's hockey has made big strides since that first tournament in 1990, although Canada and the United States continue to dominate the game against the rest of the world.

But with countries like Sweden and Russia beginning to ice stronger teams in each successive event, Heaney feels the gap is beginning to get smaller.

"People always say the other countries aren't catching up, but girls are improving all over the world," said Heaney. "Canada's getting better, so these other countries have to improve as well.

"At the first world championship, you'd watch some teams and some of their girls couldn't really skate. Now, everybody can play and it's about putting a team together."

Lemieux, owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, was unable to attend the ceremony as his team was playing against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday in the Eastern Conference final. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson accepted on his behalf.

Larionov, 47, was also bittersweet about his induction as his mother died recently in Moscow. The forward played 13 years for the Soviet Union, then played another 14 seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils

He won two Olympic gold medals with Russia (1984, 1988) and three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings (1997, 1998, 2002).

With files from the Canadian Press