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More Than a Medal

Feb 14 2018
Photo by
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Photo by
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Tony Granato
Detroit Red Wings
Feb 14 2018

F ebruary was basement-hockey season in Illinois for my family.

It was too cold to go out on the lake or in the street with my brothers, Donny and Robby, and my sister, Cammi. So everyone swapped T-shirts for winter jackets, grabbed their mini-sticks and headed down to the basement — far enough away from our parents so that they wouldn’t be able to hear our bodychecks against the bookcases.

At the start of February 1980, we were still pretending to be Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito — Chicago Blackhawks legends.

But by about the third week of February, we had started using different names.

We were Mike Eruzione, Mark Johnson and Jim Craig. We’d go toe-to-toe with one another, pretending we had American sweaters on — but always picturing the other person in Soviet Red — trying to recreate what we’d seen on the TV a few days before. And no matter how our battles ended, somebody always had to finish off every game with their best Al Michaels impersonation.

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

And then we’d pick up our gear, stack some pillows on the couch and pretend it was the medal podium.

When I think back to those days, what I remember most is how little we knew about Olympic hockey. I was 15 years old when Team USA won gold in Lake Placid — but I think that was the first time I’d really ever heard of hockey at the Olympics. I don’t remember anyone at any of my practices talking about the Olympics  in the months before they started, and I have no recollection of it being on TV in 1976. But after the Miracle on Ice, all any of us wanted to do was win Olympic gold with an American sweater on.

Even as a kid I knew it was a long shot that I’d ever get that chance, but I dreamed about it just the same. I went on to play at Wisconsin and had my own Olympic experience a few years later in 1988, but it didn’t end the way I wanted. Even when I made it to the NHL … that dream of Olympic gold never faded.

Now, 38 years later, I’m in South Korea to try to realize that dream.

Our team is an incredible group of guys. In our limited time together, we’ve already built some very strong bonds. But the one that tied us together first — and is also the strongest — is relatability. A year ago, none of us knew we’d be at the Olympics. But here we are. And we’re ready.

I can’t speak for everyone on the team — each guy has his own story, you know? — but I can at least tell you how I got here.

And to do that, I need to tell you about how I went back to school.

Literally.


Group projects in college are definitely a little awkward when you’re 52 years old.

You see, when Barry Alvarez — University of Wisconsin legend and current AD — called me in the spring of 2016 to ask me to come back and be the men’s hockey coach, I was so honored. At the time I was an assistant in Detroit and had spent over a decade coaching in the NHL. But Wisconsin is my alma mater. And some of my best memories are of my time as a Badger. My family and I spend our summers near Madison, and I have a lot of friends and relatives who live in the area. Both of my brothers, Donny and Robby, and one of my cousins, Kevin, all played hockey for Wisconsin, as well — so it had been easy for me to stay in touch with the program.

I think anyone who’s gone to school here, or lived in Madison, knows that no matter where you go, you’ll always be drawn back.

Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire

So when Barry called me, I was ecstatic. But there was one issue: I didn’t have my degree — a requirement if I wanted to coach. I had been about a half a year short on credits when I left for the NHL in 1987. But more important than checking a box on a job application was the fact that I had made a promise to my kids.

My wife and I always emphasized to our children how important it was for them to focus on their education. We told them that they could play any sports, or do anything else they wanted — but they really needed to care about school. When Barry called me, they either had their degrees or were on their way to getting them. But they knew I didn’t have mine — and I had always promised that I would go back. But as I began to climb the coaching ladder in the NHL, I really thought I’d never get the opportunity.

I told Barry about the situation and my promise to my kids. He said he’d see what he could do. And that summer I was back in a lecture hall with a bunch of 20-year-olds.

It was a little crazy. I was going to class at the same time I was getting ready to take over a hockey program. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I got great support from my family and my coaching staff — including my brother Donny, and Mark Osiecki, who was one of my assistants. It had always been a dream of mine to coach with him and he’s helped me so much.

I took six classes from the summer of 2016, to the winter of 2017. I spent my days studying, recruiting and coaching. I definitely got more than my fair share of strange looks from other students. But once some of the kids found out that I was the hockey coach, the walls started to break down a little bit and I became one of them — sort of.

My grades were a little better than they were in the ’80s, and I graduated last May — a Badger for life. Officially.


Before the Miracle on Ice, hockey wasn’t a national sport in the U.S. It was a regional sport. And really, for the most part, it was Canada’s sport. If you were from Minnesota, Massachusetts or Michigan you probably played, but that was really it. Today, though, I have players at Wisconsin from Missouri and California, and all sorts of other unlikely locales across the U.S.

That 1980 team had a huge impact on the sport in our country. Suddenly, everybody started paying a little more attention to U.S. college hockey. Players started getting drafted more often and started getting opportunities that might never have existed if it hadn’t been for that team.

And, in my opinion, there was one more pivotal moment that really helped hockey in America: the Gretzky trade.

In the middle of my second NHL season, the Rangers traded me to the Kings, and it was in L.A. where I got to see Gretzkymania first hand. It was his second season as a King, and I remember people rollerblading down the Sunset Strip with hockey bags over their shoulders and sticks in their hands — it was surreal. It’s hard to explain, because the NHL has grown so much … but it was the strangest thing seeing all of these people playing hockey in the streets of L.A. in 1990.

Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

That mania spread, too. Teams started popping up San Jose and Anaheim, Carolina and Arizona. It was a special time to be an American hockey player — and an American hockey fan. A few years later, in 1998 I experienced one of my proudest moments in my hockey life: watching Cammi win a gold medal with Team USA in Nagano.

Ten years earlier, when Cammi was playing at Providence and there were rumors going around about there possibly being women’s hockey in the Olympics, all I could think about was how nobody embodied the Olympic spirit more than she did. The hurdles that female athletes have had to get over — especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s — were huge. She’d had to play with boys, she’d had to deal with playing in different leagues and in different countries. And she’d done it all for the love of a game that some people thought she shouldn’t even be playing to begin with.

Cammi is one of my heroes.

I watched every one of her games. Seeing the gold medal around her neck … it still gives me goose bumps. All of the women on that ’98 team were pioneers. They stood for what makes the Olympics so great — a passion for your sport, a desire to compete and a love of country.

I’ve thought about Cammi’s team a lot — and about how our country fell in love with hockey — since I got a call from Jim Johannson last summer.

As the executive director of USA Hockey and the GM of the 2018 Olympic team, Jimmy was in charge of a lot of parts of the U.S. hockey program — including finding a head coach for the PyeongChang Olympics. I had known him for a long time and I knew — of all of the people involved with American hockey — how exceptionally well he represented the spirit of our program. He was a true leader of men.

Jimmy and I had spoken a few weeks before about the rosters for World Juniors. So when he called, I figured he wanted to talk about some of the players on my Badger team.

But he caught me off guard.

He said, “Tony, we’re bringing on our Olympic staff now. And … we want you to be the coach.”

I felt like a little kid again.

Jimmy told me they had a strong group of assistants, with Chris Chelios, Keith Allain, Ron Rolston, Scott Young, and some other great people throughout the organization. It was a no-brainer for me.

The rest of the call was just a complete rush of emotions. I’ll remember that moment forever. I felt so privileged to receive a call like that. I called my wife and kids right away to let them know what was happening. And, without hesitation, they told me that the whole Granato gang would be going to South Korea.

The rest of the summer was spent dividing my time between my duties at Wisconsin and my duties with the U.S. team. One of the first calls that we, as a staff, had to make right away was to Brian Gionta, who was a free agent. He was at the top of our list of guys we wanted to play for us in Korea — we knew we needed his talent on the ice, and his leadership in the dressing room.

Clive Rose/Getty Images

I called Brian in August, right before USA Hockey announced my hiring.

I said, “Brian, we really want you in South Korea. But, look, if an opportunity comes up in the NHL that makes sense for you and your family … well, take it.”

The NHL had decided a few months before that it wasn’t going to send its players to PyeongChang and Brian was still figuring out his future. But he didn’t need much convincing, if any — he was all in. And he’s been a big part of our selection process leading up to this year.

The best part of building this team was, without a doubt, when we finalized the roster. Jimmy called each player to let them know they had made the team. And then, as soon as the call ended, I would follow up to let the player know about the role we wanted him to play. It was hilarious because their voices would still be trembling when they answered my call. Pretty much every guy sounded like he was in a daze — it didn’t matter if he was a college kid or veteran playing overseas. The more calls I made, the more excited I became. And the more I realized that that was probably exactly what I had sounded like to Jimmy when he called me.

That afternoon, calling those guys with him … I’ll cherish that memory forever. Not just because of the players’ reactions, or the special conversations we had — but because I got to do it with Jimmy.

Three weeks later, on January 21, he passed away.

It’s still really hard for me to wrap my brain around it. Even now I’m having a hard time finding the right words. His death was sudden and unexpected — and it was, and still is, heartbreaking. Jimmy had done more than I could ever tell you for the game of hockey in America. But beyond that, he was a great, great friend. He was loyal and caring, and it was an honor to work by his side for seven months.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Colorado Springs to celebrate his life. Everyone there was just in a fog … we missed him so much. Every time I spoke with someone there about the Olympics, I would get this sudden urge to reach down for my phone and call Jimmy about it.

He was really excited for these two weeks.

Being there made me realize how many lives he touched. And I feel responsible for making sure that his legacy will live on. Part of that responsibility is on myself and our entire team in South Korea. Everything we’re doing, we’re asking ourselves, “Would this make Jimmy proud?” And every time we ask ourselves that question, I want the answer to be yes.

We’re going to have him with us every step of the way over here. We want to celebrate his life by giving him something he would be proud of — we want to play the type of hockey he would have loved to watch. It’s hard not be emotional about this because … he should be here right now. This is his team. He did all the groundwork, he put together the whole organization, he identified the player pool — he did it all. He built this. And we need to honor him.

Jimmy and our staff put together a team that can win. We know that. This year’s tournament is wide open because of the player pool that each nation had to choose from. Everyone is stepping into the unknown. And that’s sort of what I’ve been trying to tell the team: Take advantage of this chance, and don’t for a second think you haven’t earned it.

Each one of our guys has worn an American sweater at some level before — they know what it means. Their careers speak for themselves. They deserve to be here. I’m really proud of the group we have.

And now is the best part — the fun part. We get to go out there, represent our country and try to fulfill the dreams we’ve all been chasing for so long. Even though this year is a little strange, we want a gold medal all the same. Because at the end of the day, Olympic gold matters. It matters because of 1980, because of 1998, and because of all the men and women at USA Hockey.

Because of people like Jimmy.

Tony Granato
Detroit Red Wings