Q&A With ... Wisconsin/Olympic Coach Tony Granato
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato was chosen, earlier this month, as the head coach for this year's U.S. Olympic team, with assistants that include Yale head coach Keith Allain. Granato also played for the U.S. in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, and was an assistant coach on the 2014 team in Sochi, Russia.
The process of putting together a roster will be different than ever before. Since 1998, the NHL has sent its players to the Olympics, but that is not happening this time. Because that decision happened relatively late, it left the various countries with a dilemma.
Prior to 1998, the U.S. would put together a national team of largely amateur players to compete for a year together leading up to the Olympics. That will not happen this time.
For college hockey, it can be expected that some players will be plucked away in February for the Olympics, though whether that's two, five or 10 players won't be known for a while.
Granato himself will miss four games in February, leaving assistants Mark Osiecki and Mark Strobel to run the show. He'll also miss two games in early November so he can go to Germany to watch the U.S. play in the Deutschland Cup, an annual tournament made up of players who compete in Europe. With many Americans on those rosters, it's expected those players will comprise the bulk of the Olympic roster.
Meanwhile, Granato is getting ready for the start of Wisconsin's season, his second year at the helm. Expectations are high in Madison after a big turnaround last year that saw the Badgers fall just short of making the NCAAs. This season, there's a lot of talent, and the team is expecting to add St. Lawrence All-American goaltender Kyle Hayton to the mix as a grad transfer. That is not a certainty yet, because Hayton needed to pass the requisite courses this summer to graduate from St. Lawrence. However, goaltender Matt Jurusik recently left Wisconsin to return to the USHL, an indication that Hayton is on his way.
CHN: I assume you can't say anything yet on your goaltending situation, but do you know when you'll know?
Granato: We're just waiting to see how everything materializes in the next little while. School starts September 5th, so you have to know by then. Admissions, the beginning of class will be all complete by then. And we'll see how it all plays out. I think I know what's going to happen, but there's still things that need to be done to allow that to happen.
CHN: So putting together the Olympic team will have some challenges this time around because you can't get your team together until late.
Granato: We did that out of respect to teams that have personnel in place. There wasn't a whole lot of time to put together a full schedule, one, and two it wasn't really fair to say we want two kids from this school, three from that school, and not give (the teams) a chance to make adjustments. So a lot went into the decision to have it be a schedule that will allow the college players to stay in college and play, the players in the AHL that could potentially be candidates to stay in their organizations, and European players to stay with their teams as well.
CHN: So you are going to go to Germany for the Deutschland Cup?
Granato: Yes. From that tournament we'll get the base of our team, and as the year goes along, we'll watch the AHL and college players to see if some of those players would be a help when we get to Seoul in February. So I'm sure there will be college players on that roster. There's players on our minds that will be very good candidates, and I'm sure there will be another handful that have career years that develop to elite level and give themselves a chance to be in the mix as well.
CHN: There are some different challenges this time around. You aren't able to get an apples to apples comparison between the guys in Europe and those in college because you won't see them at the same time.
Granato: There are challenges in every roster you pick. Even if they're on the same sheet, you're trying to figure out roles and responsibilities. The collegiate athletes, the energy they have, the scheduling — and how they're able to practice four days a week and play two games — we'll have them just as ready to play as those in Europe. So as far as comparing them — I think we'll be able to identify what players are playing well over here, what players are playing well in Europe, and put together a team that can do very well in the Olympics. The World Championships are very similar. So USA Hockey has had experience.
CHN: You also have Jim Johansson as the general manager to help put together the team. But do you plan on getting a lot of tape as well so you can make decisions?
Granato: I will be. A lot of our coaches have either coached or know a lot of players in this pool. Plus USA Hockey staff that we have around college hockey and pro hockey and international, we'll be able to find out a lot about these players from other coaches. So we'll do all our homework. We have a pretty good read on most. I haven't coached most of the players in Europe, but I do know of them, I know coaches who have coached them. So we'll do our homework best we can that way. But that tournament in Germany will give us a really good feel for what we have, and also an opportunity to come back and look for players we need to support those from Europe.
CHN: So it looks like you'll miss six games total.
Granato: I'd love to not miss any, but to miss six games and represent our country ... and we've got Mark and Mark and (dir. of hockey operations) Shane Connolly to represent us here. Nothing is going to slow us down.
CHN: A lot of coaches prepare their schedules for the World Juniors, high-end programs, knowing they will lose players. Obviously you can't do that in this case because there was no time. So it throws a wrinkle into crunch time. It will be intersting to see how it affects the race.
Granato: Our league is about developing and giving them opportunities, both academically and athletically. So if you have a chance of a lifetime to represent your country, what a great thing. And hopefully one of our college guys is an Olympic star by the end of February. ... If you have a good team, a good program, your teammates, they don't skip a beat. They can survive without your star player a couple games. So I don't think there's any factor on the season where a team will say they're in trouble because of the Olympics. Maybe they'll miss two guys, but if they have two guys on the Olympics from those teams, they'll probably be so far ahead in the conference by then it won't matter anyway. Those two or four games aren't going to make a whole lot of difference in their season or standings.
CHN: I realize it's difficult to answer, but do you have any sense of how many college players will be on the Olympic roster? Are we talking 5-to-10? More? Less?
Granato: If I had to guess, there will be multiple players. It could be five, it could be more. There's a lot of guys where, if we had a full season to put a team together to practice and play, and had a schedule like that, there would probably be more. But we have a lot of guys (in Europe) that come from college now. And there's a lot of guys close to having breakout years in college hockey that will give themselves the chance, and if they emerge and have great years and we have multiple players that step up, it could go from five to eight or 10. But I'd say there will be a great representation from college hockey on that team. (College has) been a great feeder for international tournaments time and again.
CHN: Yeah, it's bit like going back to the future. Obviously it's a little different from when you were in it because you spent the year on the team, but just in terms on the impact of college players.
Granato: The Olympic experience, there's nothing greater — for athletes, coaches, fans, spectators. For someone who turns the TV on and takes pride in their country. I was lucky enough to be in it, to watch my sister (Cammi) play in it, and be part of the (coaching) staff in Sochi. To have this opportunity again brings back all the memories of what it means to represent and be part of it. There's no greater honor sporting event to be part of. So I feel really confident from the standpoint that we have (Chris) Chelios, (Scott) Young, Allain, (Ron) Rolston, Johansson on our staff, and we've all been through the experience we have.
CHN: That '88 team was loaded with big names. People probably didn't realize it at the time, especially if you didn't know college hockey.
Granato: The '80 team won (a gold medal), but man for man, the '88 team probably had more talent and was a more high-profile team personnel wise. We had one of those tournaments where we were close in a couple games against the Russians and Czechs, didn't get the bounce we needed. But we were close. That team was a heckuva hockey team. Leetch, Richter, Kevin Stevens, Craig Janney, Corey Millen, Kevin Miller, (Chris) Terreri.
CHN: Calgary and Seoul are a lot different in terms of atmospheres. Are you looking forward to that different type of experience?
Granato: The Olympics are the Olympics no matter where they are. They're all different for whatever reason. But it's still the sporting event that the entire world is watching. The spirit of it and the meaning of it is different than any other sporting event I've been in. It's an honor to be part of the staff and I look forward to doing everything we can to represent our country with energy, passion, pride and work ethic and all those things.
CHN: Any pause about going to Seoul these days given what that madman is doing across the border in North Korea? Is that something you ever think about?
Granato: I don't. Everyone said when we went to Sochi, 'Oh man, are you nervous?' Nervous about what? We're going there to play hockey and represent our country. Our government and Olympic Committee is going to make sure the situation is right and safe for all of us, and I hear Seoul and Pyeongchang is a beautiful part of the world, and I'll look forward to seeing it.
CHN: There's a lot of excitement just for Wisconsin hockey this season. You have to keep that all straight.
Granato: I went to school last year and took classes. I had to balance things last year, so this year is the same thing. I'll have all my attention focused on the University of Wisconsin, and in my down time away from the rink I'll get my USA stuff done. Like anything, it's just about staying organized. I have a huge commitment to our players here. This group is in a pretty good position to build upon what we did last year, and we have a good group of freshmen coming in to help us. We're looking forward to another exciting year here.
CHN: You were a head coach before but not at the NCAA level, so do you feel you're in better shape now as a coach going into this season than you were last year?
Granato: I had Mark and Donnie (Granato) with me that made it a heckuva lot easier, because of their experience recruiting and knowing how the NCAA works. So you learn a lot. There's always ways to try to improve and get better, and the people around me made me better. I think my team — I was proud of what our guys did. It was a big step in the right direction. We'll continue to grow and get better because of what our kids put into it. That was the thing last year that maybe got overlooked with everyone talking about coaches coming back from different places, but I don't think the players that gave so much to having a solid year got enough credit for what they did.