Granato’s play, coaching forges path to U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

December 10, 2021

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

‘Guardian angel’ to six siblings stood out on ice in NHL, behind bench at Wisconsin, in Olympics

Tony Granato’s journey to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame began as a kid in the basement of the family home in Downers Grove, Illinois, where games of mini-sticks with his siblings featured tape balls as pucks, plenty of chirping and some bumps and bruises, too.

“Being part of the Class of 2020 and being honored by your country this way is surreal and makes you reflect on your roots,” the University of Wisconsin coach said of his formal induction, which takes place in Denver on Thursday. “We had some special times playing down there. The games were competitive.

“And hey, I’m not the only one in those games who went on to have success in the sport. We had an all- star team down there, we just didn’t know it at the time.”

The 57-year-old, the oldest of six children, is referring to brother Don, three years younger, and sister Cammi, seven years younger. Like Tony, they continue to leave their mark on the sport they love.

Don Granato, 54, is the coach of the Buffalo Sabres, named to that position last season. Cammi Granato, 50, was a fixture on the U.S. women’s national team, was the first woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008 and two years later was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

“I’m so excited for him,” Don Granato said. “To me, he’s been almost like a guardian angel. I don’t know if I would have made it through hockey and through life the way I have without his support.

“He was like another parent to all five of us younger siblings. I couldn’t imagine a different older brother because he took care of all of us. He opened doors in the hockey world for all of us. Getting to be an assistant to him at [University of] Wisconsin in 2017 and ’18 was surreal. And when I went through my cancer issues in 2005 and then other serious health issues a couple of years ago he was front and center, always at my side.

“He’s a Hall of Famer when it comes to life, not just hockey.”

Cammi Granato said she agrees.

“Tony was our leader growing up,” she said. “We followed his path. With him having gone through the U.S. development and national team programs, he would always check up on me, give me advice and make sure everything was OK.

“He was like that in those basement games. He’d be the leader. Donny was the organizer who would make up the lines, keep score, those things. And there was full checking. Remember, I was a lot younger. I can’t tell you how many times I’d had enough and was walking up the stairs only to hear Tony tell me the No. 1 rule was not to tell Mom and Dad.

“You wanted to be part of it. And now he’s going to join me in the U.S. Hall of Fame. Amazing.”

On the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1980, the Granato kids were playing mini-sticks like they often did. Once they were done, they went upstairs to watch the game between the United States and Soviet Union during the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. For Tony Granato, it was a moment of inspiration.

“We were playing when the game was going on because it wasn’t being shown live,” he said. “When we watched it later, seeing Mike Eruzione’s goal that gave us the 4-3 win, it was unreal, indescribable. I told myself I wanted to represent my country like that one day.”

Ask, and ye shall receive.

“A year or two later, I’m at a USA camp with some of the members of that gold medal Miracle On Ice team,” he said. “I had to pinch myself. To think I’m now going into the same Hall where some of those guys are enshrined, it’s unbelievable.”

Granato was selected in the sixth round (No. 120) by the New York Rangers in the 1982 NHL Draft. Because the event wasn’t broadcast on TV at the time, he didn’t know he’d been picked until a friend

attending the event in Montreal phoned that night to inform the family. Tony, of course, was playing mini- sticks in the basement when his father told him.

Granato scored 492 points (248 goals, 244 assists) in 773 games during 13 NHL seasons (1988-2001) as a forward with the Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, and scored 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists) in 79 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 1989, played in the NHL All-Star Game in 1997, and won the Masterton Trophy, awarded for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, in 1997.

After retiring in 2001 he became a coach, spending 13 seasons in the NHL as a coach or assistant. He had twice coached the Colorado Avalanche (2002-04; 2008-09), guiding them to a record of 104-78-16 with 17 ties. He was an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins for five seasons (2009-14) and the Detroit Red Wings for two (2014-16).

In 2016, Granato was hired as men’s ice hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin and went on to be named the 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year, the first of two years his brother Don served as an assistant.

He also fulfilled his dream of representing the United States on the international front. He played for the United States at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, was coach of the U.S. men’s team at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and was an assistant for the men’s team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

“I played with Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles. I coached Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. And I had the chance to pull on that Team USA jersey which was the most special thing of all,” he said.

“It’s been an amazing ride.”
One that almost got derailed 25 years ago, Cammi Granato said.

“I’m going to cherish his induction because I’m reminded how we thought he might never play hockey again,” she said. “I think about it every Valentine’s Day. We’re so blessed it worked out.”

On Jan. 26, 1996, Granato, then with the Kings, smashed into the boards racing for a loose puck with Hartford Whalers defenseman Jeff Brown. Granato sustained bleeding on the left lobe of his brain and underwent surgery Feb. 14.

“It was so scary,” Cammi Granato said. “The whole family mobilized as we always do and was there. I’ve never told anyone this but as they were wheeling him into the operation, he grabbed my hand and said: ‘Don’t let me play hockey again.'”

All these years later, Tony Granato doesn’t remember saying those words to his sister. In fact, when he regained consciousness after the successful operation, his focus was on hockey again.

“When he came out of it, it was a totally different story,” Cammi said. “He was the only person in ICU trying to do lunges like he was preparing to get in hockey shape.

“We feel so lucky things worked out the way they did.” So does Tony Granato.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “For my health. For my family. For still being part of the greatest game in the world dating back to our days of mini-sticks. And now for this induction.

“It’s very humbling.”