The bus ride from Madison, Wis., to Minneapolis took four hours. Tony Granato passed time by making final preparations for his team’s weekend series against the Gophers men’s hockey team. He also tended to his other job, head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team.
Granato wears two hats simultaneously, and he’s at crunch time. The official roster for the Olympic team will be announced Jan. 1. Granato spent part of the bus ride Thursday watching video of players vying for an invitation and chatting on the phone with his Olympic assistants about roster decisions.
The Badgers-Gophers clash was on his mind, too.
Granato seemed perfectly relaxed during a chat inside Mariucci Arena on Thursday evening.
“If you make a big deal about it and say, ‘Oh man, it’s too much,’ then you’re probably pulling your hair out,” he said. “I don’t feel at all overwhelmed or overworked. I’m in a really good spot.”
Now about that Olympic team …
Unfortunately, NHL players won’t participate in these Winter Games in South Korea in February. The U.S. team will feature a blend of players from European pro leagues, college players and minor leaguers.
That’s a long drop-off in talent, pedigree and star power from NHL players. But don’t tell Granato that the absence of NHL players will make the Olympics boring compared to the drama and excitement of previous Games, mostly recently in Sochi.
“Why would you say it would feel like a letdown?” he asked. “Did you have fun watching 1980? Did you have fun watching 1988? It’s going to be a phenomenal tournament. There’s a lot to it that makes this just as exciting and different.”
The NHL hated the two-week disruption to the schedule, but that’s a minor nag compared to an opportunity to share its game and its stars with a global audience. A league fighting for attention and eyeballs on the product won’t find a better stage to strut its stuff than in a fiercely contested Olympic tournament.
Injury concerns are a valid argument. For instance, how would it help the Wild if, say, Ryan Suter suffered a season-ending injury at the Olympics? That would be a tough patriotic pill to swallow.
The Olympics provide a showcase of the world’s best in sports, but it’s hard to argue that men’s hockey will meet that objective without NHL players.
“This will be just as special as the other ones,” Granato said.
Granato wonders if the Olympics became “stale” to NHLers who have made multiple appearances and are worn down by the NHL grind. Players argued in favor of being allowed to play, but the U.S. team certainly looked disinterested in a halfhearted 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze medal game in Sochi.
I covered that game and wrote afterward that I would rather watch “a bunch of fire-in-the-belly amateurs get creamed” than witness that baloney again. So maybe I’m being a little hypocritical here.
Granato was an assistant coach for Team USA in Sochi. He loved coaching NHLers. But he also believes his bunch of Olympic newbies will compete with fire in their bellies.
But can they win a medal? Based on their only pre-Olympic tournament, that will be a tall order. Team USA recently competed in the Deutschland Cup in Germany and went 0-3, being outscored 12-4 combined by Slovakia, Russia and Germany.
Granato’s staff used that tournament to evaluate Europe-based players. Granato said he wasn’t disheartened by the outcomes because his team didn’t include primary checkers and penalty-kill specialists.
Granato said the final 25-man roster will include four to eight college players and likely a few minor leaguers.
The team won’t convene until arriving in Pyeongchang. Granato said that’s no different from world championship events or what NHLers experienced in other Olympics.
“You show up, you get two practices, you meet your teammates, put a plan in place and you play,” he said.
That sounds rushed, and daunting, for a team with a mix of players from different levels. Granato only sees optimism.
“We’ll be prepared and just as ready as any team that’s there,” he said.