In the midst of a desperate attempt to keep the Detroit Red Wings’ 25-year playoff streak alive, coaching the Wisconsin Badgers didn’t seem like an attainable goal for the new Wisconsin men’s hockey head coach Tony Granato.
This spring, the then-Red Wing’s assistant coach was most concerned with ensuring the aging veterans and future NHL Hall of Famers of Detroit had one last chance at winning a Stanley Cup. Tony Granato, a 28-year veteran of the NHL circuit, didn’t even feel he was the right fit for the Badgers’ coaching job.
With his brother Don Granato and Mark Osiecki each on the shortlist, Tony Granato was wary of competing against family and two highly-skilled, veteran coaches and recruiters. The former spent significant time as head coach of the United States National Team Development Program’s U-17 team. The latter was fresh off a stint as an assistant coach of the Rockford Ice Hogs, three seasons removed from head coaching the Ohio State Buckeyes, and six removed from assistant coaching Wisconsin under Mike Eaves.
“I didn’t try to think about [the vacant coaching position] even though it was something I wanted to do,” Tony Granato said. “I … didn’t think of a plan or a situation where it would work out that [Osiecki, Don Granato or I] would be able to come back until the presentation that Barry [Alvarez] gave me.”
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During that initial phone call early in the spring semester and future discussions, Barry Alvarez, UW athletic director, Jason King, senior associate athletic director, and Granato, hashed out the details to form what many have called a “dream team” coaching staff.
After they gave Tony Granato assurance that all three would be on board, he agreed to return to Madison, rather ecstatically, to right the ship of the struggling Badgers.
The hiring of the trio reinvigorated fan enthusiasm for a team with a rich history but won just 12 games over the past two seasons. Their introductions March 30 drew a sizable crowd to the Kohl Center during their first press conference, and there seems to be a general buzz among players and in the athletic department.
Luke Kunin, who was drafted No. 15 overall by the Minnesota Wild in the 2016 NHL draft, said the new regime is great for the program. With a budding NHL career on the horizon, that’s no small compliment from a player deeply concentrated on his development — especially one with significant experience playing for Don Granato.
“I’m very familiar with the Granatos and I’m very excited to get the chance to play for them,” Kunin said. “I think they’ll be great for the program.”
What’s so unique and exciting about this staff is how talented they are — their wide-ranging connections, but also the fact that they love this program as much as its fans.
As former Badgers themselves, little is new for Tony Granato and his assistants. Just a walk down University Avenue is enough to bring back memories from the new coach’s time as a player during the early 1980s. Not much has changed, he said. The same pictures hang on the walls of the locker and training rooms, and constant visits from alumni always spark lively conversations between old friends.
This in particular was part of the reason for hiring Tony Granato and his eagerness to come back. King said the athletic staff takes previous experience with the Badgers deep into consideration when hiring coaches and administration. Partly because there is such a unique culture surrounding Wisconsin athletics.
“It doesn’t feel like I left just from the standpoint that,” Tony Granato said. “One of the reasons I even wanted to back was because I always felt that this was an important part of my life. It is something that I missed being a part of.
“When I first got here I was asked, ‘Why would you be in the NHL and come back to college hockey?’ And I would say, ‘Why wouldn’t I? It’s the University of Wisconsin.’ For me it’s a dream job, I have a billion reasons why it was the best job.”
That type of attitude and dedication to reinvigorating a struggling program is exactly the reason Tony Granato was picked as head coach, King said. The move comes with the added excitement of how it’s such a unique situation to have three coaches of this caliber all behind the same bench.
Their wide ranging expertise in different areas makes it am elite combination, and one that can surely bring Wisconsin from out of the gutter.
“You can tell I’m pretty excited about this hiring,” King said. “It’s a very exciting time for Wisconsin hockey. I know everyone involved with the team are very excited. We just need our fans to come out and support as well.”
In an era when college hockey seems to be taking a backseat, the buzz in Madison might be just what the sport needs. The effects could be felt for years to come.
But as the new head coach said, there’s much more than simply returning to Madison needed to right the ship.
This is the first in a multi-part series on the state of Wisconsin hockey.