Wisconsin Badgers coach Tony Granato returns to Chicago, where a hometown team once made a big push for him

January 20, 2019

Not so long ago, playing Division I men’s college hockey games in Chicago wasn’t the rarity that it is today.

And there was a time when Chicago’s new team, eager to build its brand around a local kid, pulled out all the stops in its pitch to keep him home.

Tony Granato, Illinois-Chicago freshman class of 1983? OK, it sounds as much of a stretch now as it did then, the way Granato describes it.

The Downers Grove native followed his heart to the University of Wisconsin in 1983, then returned 33 years later as the Badgers’ head coach.

Today, he’ll be behind the bench at Chicago’s United Center as UW plays No. 12 Notre Dame in the second of two games between the teams at the neutral site over the past two seasons.

But it’s easy to wonder how much would have been different if Illinois-Chicago would have been successful in luring a young Granato by using some powerful connections.

The Chicago Tribune reported on Feb. 11, 1983, that Illinois Gov. James Thompson “volunteered a letter to Tony Granato, the object of a nationwide recruiting scramble, urging him to play hockey at Illinois-Chicago.”

“Getting Granato would be like DePaul landing Mark Aguirre,” an anonymous source told the newspaper, referencing the Chicago basketball star who stayed home for college. “He’d attract a lot more blue-chip talent, because everybody would know we’re serious about contending for the NCAA championship.”

Granato said this week that he didn’t remember getting a letter from Thompson, if it happened. But he does recall others making the case for UIC.

“I got a lot of calls from pretty high-up people in the world of hockey, saying how great it would be to get a college program going and have an Illinois player come in and jump-start it,” Granato said.

The 1982-83 season was the Flames’ second as a Division I program and first as a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

“In my heart, I knew where I was going,” said Granato, who grew up attending Badgers games at the Dane County Coliseum on trips up from the southwest Chicago suburbs. “When you’re a kid, 18 years old, and you’re getting all this attention and you’re thinking, ‘Well, jeez, I could be right next to Chicago Stadium playing at UIC.’

“The Blackhawks were part of that equation, too, from the standpoint that they were throwing fuel into it, saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great for you to play right here next to us as a hometown kid?’”

No such luck for UIC. Granato said it would have taken the Badgers, under new coach Jeff Sauer, not having a scholarship for him in 1983. They did, and Granato committed at the end of February of his senior year at Northwood School in New York.

Granato became a two-time All-American at UW who played 13 seasons in the NHL before becoming a coach. UIC’s program, which had only two winning seasons in Division I, folded in 1996.

No other Illinois school has had a major men’s college hockey team, even with the state ranking fourth in producing players this season. The University of Illinois has undergone a feasibility study on adding a team.

So games in Chicago have been infrequent in the past 20 years. Soldier Field has hosted outdoor games, including a Badgers victory over Minnesota in 2013. The United Center hosted the 2017 Frozen Four, and the Badgers and Fighting Irish have been there in the past two seasons, with talks for future engagements to come.

Granato, meanwhile, isn’t the only one with Chicago-area ties with the Badgers in today’s game. Defensemen Peter Tischke (Hinsdale) and Tyler Inamoto (Chicago) and forwards Seamus Malone (Naperville) and Sean and Jason Dhooghe (Aurora) each played in last year’s 5-0 victory over then-No. 1 Notre Dame at the United Center.

They can tell you with an excited look on their face that one of the freshest memories is standing on the blue line for the national anthem, with trademark Chicago applause accompanying the singing.

“Right away, you know this is a pretty cool thing we’re doing here,” Malone said.

“I just got the chills when that happened,” Tischke said.

Freshman Dominick Mersch of Park Ridge, Illinois, gets the opportunity this season, although he already has played at the United Center. That was when he was 8, on the morning of a Chicago Blackhawks game.

This one carries bigger stakes, with UW (8-10-3, 4-4-3 Big Ten Conference) on a three-game losing streak following Friday’s 6-4 loss to the Irish (13-8-1, 6-6) at the Kohl Center.

“You want to be so excited for the opportunity to play there, but at the same time you’ve got to stay focused, stay even keeled and just focus at the task at hand,” Mersch said.

From the infirmary

Badgers goalie Daniel Lebedeff, who left Friday’s game after being hit in the mask by a skate, didn’t practice Saturday. Jack Berry will get the start today; he had a 40-save shutout at the United Center last season.

Center Tarek Baker, who was slow to get off the ice after being hit by Notre Dame’s Dylan Malmquist late in Friday’s game, should be in the lineup after practicing Saturday.

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