His Own Man

Don Granato Has Made A Name For Himself As One Of USA Hockey’s Preeminent Developmental Coaches

Now in his fourth year with the National Team Development Program, Don Granato is a key cog in the USA Hockey player development system that has helped hundreds of American-born players advance their careers to U.S. colleges and the NHL.Now in his fourth year with the National Team Development Program, Don Granato is a key cog in the USA Hockey player development system that has helped hundreds of American-born players advance their careers to U.S. colleges and the NHL.

Mention the name Granato, and most hockey people think of Tony, the long-time NHLer turned assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. Or Cammi, the Olympic gold medalist and perhaps the greatest American female hockey player ever.

But another Granato has quietly built a reputation all his own — as a developer of America’s hockey stars of the future. Don Granato, three years younger than Tony and four years older than Cammi, is one of the two head coaches training tomorrow’s stars at the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the results have been turning heads.

In October, the NTDP’s Under-18 team, coached by Granato, faced off against the University of Minnesota. Not too long ago, it was rare for an NTDP squad to beat top-tier Div. I college teams, which are stocked with players three, four or even five years older than Team USA’s. Back in 2011, Minnesota trounced the U18s, 9-0.

But Granato’s charges played a smart game, outshot the Gophers, and scored a late goal to tie the game. Three minutes into overtime, center Auston Matthews gave Team USA a 5-4 win, stunning the hometown crowd at Mariucci Arena.

“You can’t start off with the idea that, it’s OK to lose, you’re only 16 or 17. I don’t want our team to buy into that,” Granato said. “If you want to beat Minnesota, you have to set that as a target and have the mentality that you can do that.”

That said, Granato is quick to point out that wins aren’t the priority in his job. Helping young players hone their abilities to be able to compete at the next level and beyond is what he’s here for.

Jordan Greenway, a member of the U18 team who’s headed to Boston University next year, said he and the other players get that message from their coach all the time.

“He doesn’t get mad if we lose a game, but he never gives you a day off,” said the prospective first round selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. “He’s always pushing you to learn new things to become better.”

Granato is just one part of the broader success story at the NTDP. Established in 1996, the program serves as an incubator for elite American hockey players with a bright future in the game.

How’s it working out? Well, at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships, Team USA has taken five of the last six gold medals. And when the NHL Entry Draft heads to Sunrise, Fla., in a couple of months, eight current or former NTDP players are projected to be chosen in the first round — the most ever. Among them, Jack Eichel, a freshman at BU, is projected to be the first or second overall pick.

That’s not all of Granato’s work. The NTDP has a long history of player development led by a cadre of world-class coaches. A group of 22 players arrives each summer, and stays with its coach for two years.

Danton Cole, a four-year star at Michigan State who played 318 games in the NHL, is running this year’s group of U17 players. Last year, Cole was at the helm when Team USA beat the Czech Republic for the gold in the 2014 IIHF Under-18 World Championship.

For Granato though, teaching the game to up-and-coming American players has added meaning beyond big wins and high draft choices. Within the accomplished Granato hockey family, Tony made his mark in a 13-year pro career. Cammi was the face of women’s hockey. But Don’s thing was coaching.

Coaching has been in Don Granato's blood since he was a youngster growing up in Downers Grove, Ill.Coaching has been in Don Granato's blood since he was a youngster growing up in Downers Grove, Ill.

The Granatos grew up just west of Chicago, in Downers Grove, Ill., skating on a flooded, frozen field across the street or a small backyard rink. Don put on the pads and faced shots from Tony, Cammi and a younger brother, Rob. (Their other sister, Christina, wasn’t into hockey; the youngest, Joe, came along after the others were out of the house).

As a Bantam, Don had to split playing time with another goalie, and bugged his coach to let him skate out. A spate of injuries gave him a chance, and he scored three goals. A center was born.

About the same time, he got his first taste of coaching. One summer the whole Granato crew attended a hockey camp in Minnesota. Don liked it so much, he stayed on as a counselor, shepherding groups of 7 and 8-year olds. He returned to that camp several more summers as an on-ice instructor.

Cammi remembers Don getting the Granato kids to watch videos to study Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring moves. He also brought home a slide board and organized basement workouts.

“Coaching — that was his path from the beginning,” she recalled.

By 1987, he was on his way to the University of Wisconsin and a roster spot with the Badgers. Not bad for a goalie turned forward just a few years earlier.

“Don was so into educating himself and learning the game,” said Mark Osieki, a teammate on the Badgers squad that won the 1990 national championship. “He was always doing something to better himself.”

During college, Granato kept up with coaching, running his own hockey school in the summers. After graduating, Granato kicked around the East Coast Hockey League for a while, and even had a tryout with the L.A. Kings. But he knew that his future was behind the bench.

He got his break in the USHL, and in 1996 guided the Green Bay Gamblers to a championship. In 2000 he won the ECHL with the Peoria Rivermen. The next year he was hired to coach the Worcester Ice Cats of the AHL. The Ice Cats became winners, and Granato was the league’s coach of the year in 2001.

After a stint as a St. Louis Blues assistant, he was named head coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. But a front-office shake up resulted in a coaching change just six games into Granato’s second season. He was working as a Vancouver Canucks scout when USA Hockey called.

Three years later a coach who built a reputation as a winner at every level found his true calling working with potential NHL stars of tomorrow.

Nick Fohr, an NTDP assistant coach, sees Granato’s drive every day, especially in the way he endlessly studies video of his team and their opponents.

“I swear he falls asleep at night with the laptop on his chest,” Fohr joked.

The U.S. has won five of the last six gold medals at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships thanks to the efforts of Don Granato and the dedicated staff at the National Team Development Program.The U.S. has won five of the last six gold medals at the IIHF Under-18 World Championships thanks to the efforts of Don Granato and the dedicated staff at the National Team Development Program.

Before one game recently, Granato combed through 113 clips of an opponent’s forecheck, and discovered a pattern. That team was aggressive as long as the puck was up for grabs. Once possession was established, they tended to back off into a defensive mode. So Granato instructed his players: get possession of the puck and be poised; the forechecking will subside and you can begin your break out. Team USA then won five of its next six games.

It’s all a labor of love for the man who has found a home in Ann Arbor.

“I don’t know if there’s a better place to coach,” Granato said. “Our guys are so talented, you can challenge them and they rise up. We get to play at the NCAA level. We get to go to Europe and play the best international teams.

“My job is a blast.”

Neal E. Boudette covers the global auto industry as a correspondent in The Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau, and writes about hockey any chance he gets.
Issue: 
2015-04

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?: