One of the feel-good stories in college athletics last year was University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Tony Granato going back to school to finish his degree while simultaneously reinvigorating a powerhouse program that had gone dormant on and off the ice.
Turns out he was just practicing for this year.
Granato balanced his dual roles brilliantly after returning to his alma mater last year. He took over a team that had won 12 games total the previous two seasons and coached it to 20 victories and a second-place finish in the Big Ten Conference. He also passed the 15 credits he needed to earn a degree in Human Development and Family Studies almost 30 years after he left school for a long career as a player and coach in professional hockey.
Now a similar double-edged challenge awaits. Only this time it will be tougher, and way more public.
First, Granato must build on the momentum and buzz generated by UW’s program last year, when it started to recapture lost fans with an entertaining, fast-paced style and a return to the school’s traditional winning ways. Second, he’ll miss nearly a month of the college season because he’ll be coaching Team USA in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a prestigious appointment and an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“There was no decision,” said Granato, who takes great pride in representing his country in international events and has participated in the Olympics as a player and assistant coach.
But if Granato’s decision was easy, the next six months won’t be.
Olympic hockey will be without NHL players for the first time since 1994, a challenging new format that will generate many unknowns for a team made up of European professionals, minor leaguers and college players. The clincher for Granato was his Olympic coaching duties will force him to miss only a portion of UW’s season — one week in November for a tournament in Germany and two and a half weeks in February for the Games themselves.
Still, coaching a UW team picked for third in the Big Ten and trying to piece together a roster for Team USA will be a difficult juggling act throughout the season, even if Granato doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I think after what I went through last year with the schooling part, this part’s easy,” he said. “Because the other part’s hockey, so it’s somewhat related to my other job. There’s plenty of time in the day to get everything I need to get done here and then spend an hour on the Olympic stuff, if that’s what it’s going to be. At this point, there’s a lot of phone discussions and conversations with other coaches and some personnel evaluation to see where we’re at and who is becoming available.”
One big difference this year is Granato’s second job won’t involve trying to quietly blend in on campus with students less than half his age. This time the whole world will be watching.
Granato has already felt the intensity of the interest. He can’t engage in a conversation these days without being asked about the Olympics. Indeed, at his season-opening news conference for the Badgers, the first question he fielded was about the Olympics.
“It’s daily,” Granato said, “and it’s a pretty simple answer. I say, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a great opportunity. We’re going to put a team together that’s going to be fun to watch and that the American people will be proud of.’ ”
As seriously as Granato is taking the Olympics, he doesn’t need to be reminded he has important duties at home, too. The Badgers return plenty of firepower from last year’s team, added a proven goaltender in graduate transfer Kyle Hayton and will be looking to earn the NCAA tournament bid that barely eluded them last season.
No matter what Granato says, you have to wonder if there are enough hours in the day, especially because Granato’s passion for hockey won’t allow him to short-change either role.
“The thing that people don’t understand is when Tony jumps into something, he’s jumping in with both feet,” UW associate head coach Mark Osiecki said. “So he’s going to spend a lot of time and energy on it. We’re trying to make sure that he understands that he doesn’t have to do it all, that he has some people in place. But that’s just the way Tony is. He likes to go in full out. But there are going to be time constraints for him. I think he understands that, I think he feels good about it, I think he feels good about the staff that he has (at USA Hockey). So it should be pretty seamless for him.”
USA Hockey named former UW player Jim Johannson, who has been involved in the previous six Olympics, as the team’s general manager. Four-time Olympian Chris Chelios, another former UW player, will be an assistant coach along with Keith Allain, Scott Young and Ron Rolston, providing a wealth of NHL and Olympic experience.
Just as important will be the staff of UW alums who will be in charge of the Badgers program when Granato is gone, especially Osiecki, a former Ohio State head coach. New assistant coach Mark Strobel, who replaced Don Granato when he left for the Chicago Blackhawks, and director of hockey operations Shane Connelly also will play key roles. Granato has great trust in all of them, in part because the staff was all on the same page last season.
“With Mark Osiecki and with Strobes now on staff, there’s going to be zero fear,” Granato said. “Shane Connelly will jump on the bench for us when I am out. He’s a guy that has a tremendous hockey mind as well. So I don’t have any fear of that at all. It’ll be taken care of.”
Granato has a head start since he was announced as the Olympic coach in early August, with the blessings of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez. With UW’s opener against Michigan Tech today, he has already put considerable thought into how his personal schedule will look.
“One day a week on Sundays, on our day off after games, I might spend a few hours on phone calls and viewing videotape,” Granato said. “I’m telling you, in the coaching world, you learn how to balance what you need done.
“I’m not going to cheat my position here, not one bit. I know with both staffs, the staff here and the staff at USA Hockey, we will complement each other on what we need to get done to be ready for both situations with both teams.
“We’re good. When I talked to Coach Alvarez about it, he was assuming it was going to be the full year and returning at the end. I said, ‘No, no, I’m going away for one week in November and a couple more in February,’ and he said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great.’ So there’s a lot of positives to it.”
The biggest might be that it should nudge UW’s recovering program even closer to the epicenter of college hockey. Osiecki, the Badgers’ chief recruiter, has already noticed a change.
“When I walk into a rink right now anywhere, whether it’s in western Canada or Minnesota or Illinois, everyone’s talking about it,” Osiecki said. “That’s one of the first things they bring up, what a special honor that is for Tony to be the head coach in the Olympics.”
The most comforting thing is Granato has done this juggling act before and, as they say, practice makes perfect.