There aren’t many people who have more experience and exposure to the game of hockey than Tony Granato.
He has skated with Wayne Gretzky, and coached legends like Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. But he has not only dealt with stars, he has been one himself. He has seen it all in the industry as a player and coach, being injured, traded, fired and promoted.
So where else is there left for him to go? For Granato, the answer is the place where it all started: Wisconsin.
“I get the opportunity to come back to the program that means a lot to me and gave me a chance to have a life after college,” Granato said. “I never really left the program.”
From Downers Grove, Illinois, Granato came to Wisconsin as a freshman student athlete in 1983. He played all four years of his college career in red and white and eventually landed himself a spot in the UW Athletics Hall of Fame. Granato had success every year he was at Wisconsin, but his final season as a Badger was the most impressive campaign by far.
In his senior season, Granato netted 28 goals and dished out 45 assists, finishing with a career high 73 points. Over his four-year stint as a Badger, he totaled 100 career goals and 220 assists, ranking third and fourth respectively in the program’s history. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award his senior year and finished as a two-time All-American. Granato undoubtedly made a mark on Wisconsin hockey.
Following his college career in Madison, Granato’s next stop was the Big Apple after the New York Rangers selected him 120th overall in the 1982 National Hockey League draft. He continued his prolific play in New York, scoring 36 goals in his rookie season, which still stands to this day as a Rangers’ team record.
After two years with the Rangers, he headed to Los Angeles where he would spend seven years playing alongside arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky. In the Los Angeles Kings’ playoff run to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, Granato recorded 17 points in 24 games. It was a fitting performance to tie the bow on his best year as a professional, headlined by 82 regular season points.
In 1996 Granato headed to San Jose to play for the Sharks in what would prove the final stop in his 13-year career as a player. Five years later, he retired after the 2001 season.
In 2007, Granato traded his jersey for a suit and made his return to the ice as the assistant coach of the Colorado Avalanche. There he would coach hockey greats such as Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy, while bouncing back and forth between the head and assistant coaching positions.
“I think the biggest thing [in coaching in the NHL to college hockey] is the fact that the recruiting side of things has so many more things involved that are more than just coaching,” Granato said. “You have to be good on the practice side of things and the administrative side of things.”
Two years later, he was fired as the Avs’ head coach, but he wouldn’t be out of hockey for long. Later that year he signed on as the assistant coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were led by star center forward Sidney Crosby. By the time 2014 had rolled around, he left Pittsburgh for Detroit to claim his last assistant coaching position with the Red Wings.
Now in 2016, his hockey journey has ultimately come full circle, returning to where it all began at UW.
“When I came here I knew I wasn’t just coming here to coach a team,” Granato said. “I didn’t realize all the things that come along with it, and every one of them is exciting. It’s being part of somethings that’s bigger than just coaching hockey; it’s being party of a community, a university and the city of Madison.”
For someone with such an incredible career as a player and a coach, some might find it incredibly challenging to leave the top of their profession. Granato, however, is a fan of opportunity and loves Madison for what it is — a place he has viewed as a second home that gave him the chance to pursue his professional career.
Madison is also the home for many of his family members too, including his brother Don Granato, who returned to Wisconsin to coach alongside his brother this year as well.
“When the opportunity presented itself to get the chance to work with Mark and Donny and come back here and be a part of this staff and part of this athletic department, I said ‘Why wouldn’t I?’” Granato said.
The Wisconsin coach has his work cut out for him in his pursuit to bring the Badgers back to their winning tradition. The team has won only 12 games in the last two seasons, but Granato is optimistic and ready to get to work.
For Granato, that even means taking classes at UW to finish off a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. In order to keep a head coaching job in college hockey, the coach must have a degree or be able to complete a degree within a 12 month period.
After Wednesday’s practice before his first regular season game as the Badger’s head coach, Granato shared some of his thoughts on upcoming challenges.
“I think there’s a lot of pieces in place, the group that was left here has a lot to offer … I think we’re going to have a really exciting team to watch,” Granato said.
There’s no doubt that coach Granato will put everything he has into the team that helped him become everything he is today. It’s hard to argue with a list of accomplishments and success in the hockey world as long as Granato’s, but what separates him from other coaches is his dedication, knowledge, and most importantly, his passion for the team and city that he loves.