Blues Hope Granato Is Healthy,
Back Behind Bench Soon
By Larry Wigge
There are over 1,100 miles that separate St. Louis and Worcester, Mass., home of the St. Louis Blues’ farm team in the American Hockey League. It must sometimes seem like an even longer path to the National Hockey League for many of the Blues’ prospects in Worcester.
But in reality all of those players are much closer to one day reaching the NHL due to the efforts of Don Granato, head coach of the Worcester IceCats. He has put players like Barret Jackman, Christian Backman, Eric Boguniecki, Mark Rycroft, Matt Walker, Dwayne Roloson, Justin Papineau, Eric Nickulas – to name just a few – on the road to the NHL. More recently he has been grooming the likes of Peter Sejna, Jon DiSalvatore, Aaron MacKenzie and Dennis Wideman on the current Worcester roster.
A minor league head coach’s job is one we probably don’t think enough about, considering how much we enjoy watching a youngster step into the Blues lineup and contribute the way Backman, Reinhard Divis, Walker, Mike Stuart, Nickulas, Aris Brimanis, Jame Pollack, Steve McLaren, and John Pohl did under emergency conditions last season.
"As coach of the NHL club, you sometimes might wonder what kind of player you’re going to get, how ready he will be to help the big club if you bring him up," Blues Head Coach Mike Kitchen said over the phone the other day. "But, with Donnie there in Worcester, we don’t have any reservations. We know the player is going to be well-schooled in our system and he is going to be mentally ready for the big jump he faces from the AHL to the NHL."
Bringing in new faces that can add skill, youthful enthusiasm and the kind of passion for the game that Blues’ fans expect will never be just a blip on General Manager Larry Pleau’s radar screen. Pleau, you can be sure, will be forever committed to making young prospects ready to play in the NHL when it is their time.
And that is what makes the recent news that Don Granato was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma an even greater shock to Pleau and the rest of the Blues family.
The 37-year-old coach had been complaining about a pain in his neck and the fact he was losing weight. While undergoing an MRI a tumor was found. The good news is that doctors report that Donnie’s cancer was caught quickly and they will begin aggressive treatment almost immediately.
"It goes without saying that our prayers and thoughts go out to Donnie and his family at such a stressful time," Pleau said, after hearing the alarming news. "Donnie is a dedicated and caring young man. And we care what happens to him a great deal."
Pleau added that at a time of concern such as this, the person – and not just the job – comes first. But, it’s also clear that the Blues value Granato’s contributions above and beyond that of a normal coach.
"You work long and hard to find the right guy to guide your prospects to the NHL," Pleau said. "And Donnie Granato has more than shown the patience, passion and incite in bringing along so many young players for us."
It’s no secret that the University of Wisconsin made huge overtures to hire Don Granato to replace long-time Badgers coach Jeff Sauer in 2003. There was also talk that Granato’s brother, Tony, had thoughts of bringing Don into Colorado to help him when he was head coach of the Avalanche last season.
Don Granato, who was the captain of the Badgers’ NCAA championship team in 1990 and spent countless hours on bus rides during two years with Columbus of the East Coast Hockey League, skated smoothly into the coaching profession with stops in Green Bay of the United States Hockey League (1994-97), and Columbus (1997-99) and Peoria (1999-2000) of the East Coast Hockey League. He was named the AHL's Coach of the Year in his first season in Worcester -- and now he’s in his fifth season there and 11th overall as a head coach.
To say that Granato grew up around the sport as one of six siblings in Downer’s Grove, Ill., just outside of Chicago, is an understatement. Hockey was a passion for Donnie, his brothers Tony and Robbie, and sister Cammi. Tony, the most famous of the brood, had a long run as a player in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, before becoming head coach and now assistant coach with the Avalanche. Robbie followed Tony to the University of Wisconsin, and Cammi is the all-time leading scorer in women’s international hockey.
''We used to play outside for as long as we could – and then we would take the action down to the basement,'' Donnie said with a laugh in September, when the IceCats had a week-long training camp in St. Louis. ''And with all the games we played – I can't remember one that didn't end with a fight, or with somebody running off crying.''
Before Pleau eventually promoted Granato from the team’s Peoria farm club in the ECHL, he had three people he talked to about the Worcester job to replace Greg Gilbert, who left the IceCats to become head coach of the Calgary Flames. One candidate resulted in a short conversation, another had a more formal interview, and then there was a lengthy life-story type of interview with Donnie. Pleau knew that Donnie was clearly his man.
"He's young. He's enthusiastic. He's a good teacher. And he comes from a hockey family," Pleau told me back in September, remembering the interview process. "You take a decision on who will handle your prospects very seriously. You spend lots of money in the development process, from scouting the kids to grooming them to be NHL players. It’s important not to make a mistake in choosing a coach to bring your prospects into the future."
Granato said he decided fairly early in his life that his future would put him behind the bench.
''They say you take a lot from each coach you play for, but to me playing for Jeff Sauer at the University of Wisconsin was even more of an eye-opening experience. It was sort of like he was showing me the way,'' he said. ''I knew I was passionate about the game and enjoyed giving a tip or two to a teammate that I thought might help them out. Those things helped me make my decision to get into coaching.''
In his previous coaching jobs, Granato was in charge of recruiting as well as coaching. But in Worcester, Blues’ management and its scouting staff find most of the talent and it’s Donnie’s job to mold them into NHL players.
''After coaching 10 years, I can tell you it’s all about motivation, about getting what you can out of players,'' Granato said. ''Three games in four nights. The bus trips. Playing with injuries. But the players are more motivated here, because, in most cases they can see how close they are to the NHL. They know the reward. They are so close, they can taste it – and helping them reach their goal is a particularly good feeling to me.''
For now, part of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Kitchen, who will assist Steve Pleau for the remainder of the season.
''Everything’s important in helping to develop a player, from a casual conversation to a tip you might give a youngster after practice to, well, everything,'' Kitchen said. ''Some of these kids are just 19 years old. You have to serve as everything from coach to guidance counselor to nutritionist . . . showing them the right way to eat so they can become bigger and stronger, things that are paramount for prospects that aspire to make it at the NHL level.
''I remember the coaches I had going up the ladder to the NHL. I remember the tips they gave me, the ones that worked . . . and the ones that didn’t. I can’t stress how important I will take this job for the rest of the season.''
I remember listening intently to Donnie and seeing him smile when he was talking about the passion that winger Troy Riddle showed in his face during the Blues’ prospects tournament, when the team was in the locker room and Granato had to give it to his team for its lackluster play through two periods of the championship game against Tampa Bay prospects (which the Blues’ prospects rallied to win and Riddle was a big part of the comeback).
I remember hearing him talk about the pride that young defenseman Aaron MacKenzie showed in challenging every player on the Hartford team after a big hit by MacKenzie left Hartford players and fans unhappy with the injury the opposition player sustained.
I remember the patience he showed when he talked about how he would have to soon sit down with Russian prospects Alexei Shkotov and Konstantin Zakharov and explain to them that everyone in the organization knows they have great offensive skills, but that alone won’t get them to the NHL if they don’t know how to check and play within the system.
''I can’t think of a more even-keeled person that I’d trust to work with our prospects than Donnie,'' Kitchen said. ''Knowing he’s in Worcester makes my job in St. Louis easier.''
Seeing Kitchen behind the bench with Steve Pleau might push a few of the Worcester players to make a strong late-season run. Dennis Wideman or Aaron MacKenzie or Peter Sejna or Jon DiSalvatore might just get one of those career-progressing tips that Kitchen said he got from a minor league coach.
No matter what happens in Worcester’s drive to make the playoffs, one thing is certain: Everyone connected with the Blues and IceCats will breathe easier when Don Granato is back in Worcester and the organization’s chain of command is returned to normal.
Get well quick, Donnie.