Tom Oates: Badgers men’s hockey coach Tony Granato faces an open net in Year 3
Tony Granato knew the fix wouldn’t be easy.
There would be obstacles — some he was aware of, some he wasn’t — to overcome before he could steer the University of Wisconsin back to its rightful place in the upper echelon of men’s college hockey.
The irony is one of the obstacles might have been Granato himself. Between finishing up his degree during his first year of coaching the Badgers and coaching the United States Olympic Team during his second, his attention and his time were always divided. Returning to his alma mater and earning his degree after three decades was a wonderful story and coaching your country’s Olympic team is an honor that can’t be passed up, but for his first two seasons at UW, there simply wasn’t enough of Granato to go around. He was stretched too thin.
That won’t be the case during Granato’s third season. Unfettered by other obligations and considerably wiser after coaching the college game for two years, Granato is more determined than ever to elevate UW’s program to its former glory.
“The last two years have been challenging for different reasons,” he said recently. “I didn’t have as much 1-on-1 time as I would have liked with our current players and that was the drawback of being in school for 15 credits, the drawback of being the Olympic coach. You only have so many hours in a day to do what you need to do. Those were the two things the first two years that if I look back on that I learned from, that would be my lesson, that I didn’t have enough of me to be around our team.”
From now on, it’ll be all Granato, all the time for the Badgers.
Echoing the words of football coach Paul Chryst, Granato said the most important part of coaching is the relationship with the players. That relationship-building began in earnest during the summer.
“If you don’t have that relationship and you don’t have the hours in with them, whatever system you put in, whatever you’re teaching them, good luck,” he said. “You have to be there with them. You have to know the players. They have to know you. I want to be around these guys all the time. They’re our guys. They’re our kids now. As a staff we’ve made a more conscious effort this season to spend the time needed to be a good coach and to help these kids.”
That is just one of many lessons Granato learned in his first two seasons at UW, which is why this season seems more like the real start to his program than the first two. The 20-15-1 record in his first season was fun, but it now seems like the Badgers got ahead of themselves in the rebuilding process. Last season’s 14-19-4 mark could have been a little better, but not much.
Now, however, Granato has reassimilated himself into college hockey after spending 28 years as an NHL player or coach. The learning curve is over. He not only has a better grip on the coach-player relationship, he has a deeper understanding of UW, of recruiting, of roster makeup, of the college landscape.
He also has his first full-bodied recruiting class on campus, a nine-player group that includes three NHL draft picks — defensemen K’Andre Miller (first round) and Ty Emberson (third) and forward Jack Gorniak (fourth) — and some likely four-year contributors. Granato and chief recruiters Mark Osiecki and Mark Strobel also have a potentially better class on the way next year.
Granato said the recruiting process provided his initial shock at UW. Guided by family advisors, players commit to schools at a very young age these days, so when the new staff went looking for older players back in 2016, the pickings were slim.
“Our first two classes, there weren’t a whole lot of players available to us,” he said. “This class coming in — and really next year’s class — was the first wide-open class for us. This class that’s in now is really good and really solid. This class is the type of player and student-athlete that we were looking for as the base of the program — character, work ethic, grit, all-around solid student-athletes.
“They’re a dream class from a character (standpoint). Mixed in there are some elite players, because you’ve got a first-round pick and you’ve got a third-round pick and you’ve got a fourth-round pick. But we still have a nice mixture of guys that might be here for four years in that group. So it’s a combination class that we think we’re going to have to have every year. We’re hoping to get the three or four guys that might be here one or two years and then four or five guys that might be here three or four years.”
The class could have been even better had highly touted left wing Sampo Ranta, a third-round NHL pick, been admitted to school. Like Swedish defenseman and fifth-round pick Philip Nyberg two years before, Ranta didn’t score well enough on the Test of English as a Foreign Language to be admitted to UW. He ended up at Big Ten Conference rival Minnesota, which makes his loss even harder to take.
UW also lost out on twins Cole and Christian Krygier, defensemen from Michigan who signed with UW but asked for (and were granted) their releases because, according to their father, they didn’t want to stand in line for playing time and were having trouble getting admitted to school. The Krygiers, both drafted in the seventh round, signed with Michigan State, another Big Ten rival.
Like many other UW coaches over the years, Granato is frustrated by losing committed or signed players to the school’s high academic standards, especially when they show up at other conference schools. But he also accepts it and has learned that recruits need to start working on their college entrance exams and foreign language tests very early.
“Sometimes I don’t quite understand it as much as I probably should,” Granato said. “I recruit kids that I think will be very successful here. Unfortunately, I’m not the one that stamps ‘accepted’ on their applications. I have to respect that. We have standards here that make our school special. I enjoy those challenges. But I have to be aware of recruiting the right kids. I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that.
“The players that haven’t got in, is it frustrating? Of course, it is. You spend a lot of time and energy building those relationships. But what I think is a really good, solid kid who will do well here might not translate into what other people in admissions think. I can understand that. That’s part of it. It’s a learning thing for me as well. I’ll move forward and do the best I can to get the right Wisconsin Badger that understands what being a Badger is, understands the responsibility as a student-athlete. Our students have done really well.”
Another eye-opener for Granato was the Big Ten, which was a competitive flop in its first three seasons but has emerged as a college hockey dynamo in the past two. The Big Ten put four teams — a quarter of the field — in last year’s NCAA tournament, and three of them made it to the Frozen Four.
Adding Notre Dame last season was a big help, but solid Big Ten teams — UW two years ago, Minnesota last year — aren’t even getting into the tournament.
“It’s ridiculous how healthy the Big Ten Conference is right now,” Granato said.
UW’s program was down when Granato arrived, but it wasn’t destitute. Granato said there were some good pieces already here, though the depth in the program was lacking. With stellar seniors Peter Tischke and Seamus Malone taking on the captains’ duties and an influx of young talent the past two years, UW’s fortunes are looking up.
And knowing what he now knows, Granato is even more sold on the potential of the program.
“This year we’re young, we’re exciting, we’re going to work, we’ve got a great base,” he said. “This is the base year. The inexperience is going to leave things more unpredictable on the results and where we’re going to be at the end of the year standings-wise, but I couldn’t be happier with where we are right now. If we look back to when we got here — it was just over two years ago — and I look at that room right now, we’ve got the kinds of players and people who we want in that room. With that, the base and the culture and the way we do things here is right in line with where we want to be at this point.”
Goal scoring might be a problem after losing Trent Frederic early to the NHL and Ranta to the admissions process, but the staff didn’t panic and bring in bodies just to fill out uniforms.
“We stayed with the plan and I think we’re in a really, really exciting spot,” Granato said. “I think the team will play our brand. We will play like Badgers this year. The last two years we’ve had some inconsistencies. We’ve shown at times where you’re like, ‘Holy cow, there they are,’ but we haven’t been able to sustain it. That first year we probably sustained it more so than the second year. This year you will see the product out there consistently. It’s young and, with the inexperience, there’s more unpredictability on what’s going to happen. But I think that makes it even more exciting. I’m really, really excited for this group.”
He should know. He’s around them all the time.