By Dan Burns
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – U.S. men’s hockey coach Tony Granato has come to the Pyeongchang Olympics with about the most anonymous group of players imaginable for a mission to win America’s first hockey gold medal since 1980.
And that’s just fine by him.
After all, who knew anything about Team USA goalie Jim Craig or goal scorers Mark Johnson, Buzz Schneider and Mike Eruzione before they pulled off the most improbable upset in U.S. hockey history? Certainly not Granato, who recalls being a 15-year-old kid watching the so-called “Miracle on Ice” game, when the Americans beat the Soviet Union 4-3 at the Lake Placid Olympics.
“I didn’t know who Jim Craig was,” Granato said on a recent conference call. “Or Jack O’Callahan, I had no idea. Kenny Morrow, I had no idea … and within two days I was doing a lot of research to figure out who all these guys were and within two weeks they were obviously all my heroes.”
With no NHL players, Granato is hoping to make a fresh crop of heroes out of a collection of journeymen pros, a handful of top college players and one proven ex-NHL leader – Stanley Cup winner Brian Gionta, who retired last year after 15 seasons with three teams. Team USA captain Gionta is the only one with Olympic experience from Turin in 2006.
Granato, though, is not dwelling much on the limited top-level experience among his players. In his view, they all have great hockey DNA.
“All of these guys have had great careers and great paths to get to where they are,” Granato said this week after a pre-tournament practice. “It’s different paths from (Chicago Blackhawks all-star) Patrick Kane’s and those guys had from the last few Olympics, but they’re all great hockey players.”
Fifteen have at least some NHL experience, though Gionta alone accounts for about a third of the total NHL games played by all of them. Most were at least drafted by NHL teams and the four college kids – Jordan Greenway, Troy Terry, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen – are all seen as top pro prospects.
“So we’ve got a lot of talent,” Granato said. “We have to find a way in a very short tournament to be the best team.”
Pyeongchang marks Granato’s third trip to the Olympics, although it is his first as head coach. He was a member of the 1988 team in Calgary that finished seventh, and he was an assistant coach with the team that went to Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and came fourth.
Granato joined the New York Rangers after the Calgary games and went on to a 13-year playing career with three NHL clubs. He turned to coaching in 2002 and worked as an assistant or head coach with three NHL teams until taking over in 2016 as head men’s hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin, where he had a standout collegiate playing career.
In mid-2017, he was tapped as Team USA head coach but has had to do double-duty in helping assemble the team and continue at Wisconsin until he left for Pyeongchang.
“It’s been all year, trying to leave enough time to do the Wisconsin stuff, enough time to do the (U.S.) evaluations and watch enough video on our opponents, watch enough video on our players to get a pretty good feel for the tournament and for our roster decisions,” he said.
A LAST-MINUTE LOSS
Nothing has been harder for Granato and his team to overcome, however, than the sudden death last month of Team USA general manager Jim Johannson, a loss that struck Granato particularly hard.
He and Johannson had been team mates on the 1998 Olympic team and before that at Wisconsin.
“Everything we do Jimmy’s in our thoughts, on our minds,” Granato said this week after a practice, wearing a button with the initials “J.J” emblazoned over an American flag.
Johannson, 53 when he died at his home in Colorado Springs, was the one ultimately responsible for picking Team USA’s players.
“This is all Jim Johannson’s work,” Granato said. “He thought through the whole thing on how we were going to do the evaluations, where we were going to draw our players from, how we were going to get them, how we were going to get them ready.”
Johannson’s death is providing added motivation to deliver in Pyeongchang when Team USA’s tournament kicks off on Wednesday against Slovenia. The players keep a jersey with his name on it in their locker-room.
“That’s what excites me, the opportunity to play out the plan that he had in place for all of us to execute, and all the players feel the same way.”
(Reporting by Dan Burns, editing by Ed Osmond)