Big Ten conference play got underway in earnest this weekend, bringing up another first for Wisconsin coach Tony Granato. The former NHLer already had his first game and his first win as a Badger bench boss, but now he’s really in the thick of things. For a program that had fallen on hard times lately, the injection of experience and name recognition in Granato, his brother Don and ex-Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki is being counted on to turn the tide in Madison.
Those three coaches have taken over a program that won just 12 games combined in the past two seasons and the mission was clear from the outset. “When things go bad, they can spiral,” Granato said. “We tried to get the guys to believe in themselves again and we’re on our way.”
The Badgers already have a statement win over Boston College, but more importantly, the long-term is looking positive. Once Granato and his crew took over from the dismissed Mike Eaves regime, Wisconsin seemed to land a hot future recruit every other week. The fact Don Granato came from the U.S. National Team Development Program helped (Ty Emberson and K’Andre Miller are NTDP kids, for example), but the staff also had to look long-term because that’s the nature of the beast these days. “It’s definitely different than it was 30 years ago,” Granato said. “Finding the best player available becomes much more difficult with early commitments.”
Not that the Badgers were hopeless. Luke Kunin is a Minnesota Wild first-rounder who brings leadership and a great toolsy game to the ice. He’s captain despite only being a sophomore and proved his mettle last year when he refused to bail on Wisconsin, even with OHL Sarnia pushing for him to leave for major junior. “Luke had the opportunity to leave and he stayed on board,” Granato said. “That showed character.”
A former NHL coach with Colorado and assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Detroit, Granato is heading up a college program for the first time. He’s using Wisconsin’s great hockey atmosphere as a recruiting draw, but also the development side of the program for players with serious NHL aspirations. Having older brother Don on board has been a boon, as Don was a big reason that Tony got into coaching in the first place. In Osiecki, he has another lieutenant with big-time experience, not to mention a friend for the past 25 years.
And of course there is the much-talked about fact that Granato is also taking classes at the university while he coaches. It’s part of the job description that the coach has a degree and Granato, who played for Wisconsin back in the day, still has some credits to fill. He’s taking one class on Racial and Ethnic Families in the United States and another one on Leadership. No hockey players are in his classes, but he does have some football Badgers in there with him. It gives Granato a unique perspective on his charges, though. “It’s about time management,” he said. “You have to do your work so you’re not chasing things all year.”
For a program trying to get back on top, that sounds like a pretty good recipe for success on the ice, too.