|Wednesday, December 18
Updated: December 19, 12:57 PM ET
Granato? Well, why not?
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
In January 1996, after being checked into the boards in a game against the Hartford Whalers, Los Angeles Kings center Tony Granato had unshakable headaches.
During his convalescence, Granato had plenty of visitors, including Los Angeles teammate Eric Lacroix and Eric's father, Colorado Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix.
Eric Lacroix was one of Tony's closest friends on the Kings, but Granato nonetheless was impressed that Lacroix -- an opposing GM -- showed up at the hospital, passing along well wishes to an aggravating, gritty, hard-nosed opponent. Nearly seven years later, the Granato-Lacroix ties have gotten even tighter.
Pierre Lacroix, still the Avalanche GM, Wednesday fired Bob Hartley, who in four full seasons guided Colorado to at least the Western Conference finals each time, and elevated Granato to replace him.
"Pierre asked if I was interested in doing this," Granato said. "How could you turn down an opportunity like this? I feel ready."
The funny thing is that Eric Lacroix, now his father's aide de camp as the franchise's director of hockey operations, has had a hand in hiring two of his father's three head coaches. Eric played for Marc Crawford with the Saint John's Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League, and endorsed Crawford to his father when Pierre was looking for a Quebec Nordiques' head coach in 1994. And now Hartley's successor is Granato, who played with Eric at Los Angeles and drew Eric's endorsement for the assistant coaching opening last summer.
Pierre Lacroix, the former player-agent who switched sides of the table in 1994, always has prided himself on not abiding by conventional NHL standards. In this instance, he shocked many with his choice of Granato.
The day of Hartley's firing was bizarre in other ways. Hartley ran the Avs' practice, then got the news from Lacroix. The Avalanche players visited Denver's Children's Hospital, then were told that their coach had been fired -- and that Granato, so recently their opponent on the ice, was the new head coach.
"There's no good timing for making a decision like that," Pierre Lacroix said of the firing. "I had this responsibility, and I had to do it."
When word of Hartley's firing began filtering out, the initial assumption was that the U.S.-born Granato would be an interim coach, with one of those round-up-the-usual-suspects coaching searches about to begin.
("Likely candidates include Ted Nolan, Toe Blake, Larry Robinson, Hap Day, all 23 Sutter brothers ...")
So the firing -- the latest reflection of the NHL's notorious but ingrained policies of impatience and scapegoating -- wasn't as surprising as the identity of Hartley's successor. It's possible that if Granato does well, this hiring could end up heralding a departure from the shuffling around of coaches, and a new emphasis on hiring a man who isn't very far removed from his playing days.
"I never had a doubt," Lacroix said. "It (the choice) was right in my face. ... In the past, I always had the same philosophy. If you have the person with the right attributes, you're making no mistake. I never had to think about this."
Hired only last summer to replace departed assistant coach Bryan Trottier, Granato has 31 more games of coaching experience -- and as an assistant at that -- than, say, the beer vendor on the concourse behind section 112 at the Pepsi Center.
At 38, Granato is one year older than Patrick Roy, whose lackluster play contributed to Hartley's ouster.
But age isn't the issue here. Experience is. Granato is the oldest coach Lacroix ever has hired. Crawford was 33 when Lacroix picked him. Hartley was 37 when he was elevated from the Avs' farm club to succeed Crawford.
This move essentially is a challenge to those in the dressing room who used Hartley's lack of NHL playing experience as an excuse to belittle or ignore him. Now one of their own -- an ex-player, even one of their friends in some instances -- is their head coach. There are no excuses.
Granato played with Rob Blake for six seasons with the Kings. Now he's Blake's boss, trying to get the most out of a defenseman who only recently seemed to rediscover his hitting touch.
Granato, the Chicago-area native who played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, is an American coach hired by a GM who sometimes has been accused of underrating U.S.-bred talent.
Less than two years ago, he was with the Sharks, at times infuriating the men he now is coaching.
"It's an advantage from the standpoint that I'm just out of the game," Granato said. "I know what the players expect and what players demand."
Granato is adamant that his final four seasons in the NHL, with San Jose, were a virtual player-coach experience, since he was presented with leadership mandates.
"If you look at what he's been through in his hockey career," Lacroix said, "he's always been a high-quality leader and a gentleman with a lot of great attributes. He has a great understanding of the game, and if you look at the way he played the game, he's a passionate person."
Granato said he will coach "a game with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. If you look around, you see all the names on the stalls in this locker room, and you let them play. They're guys who have won Cups, and the leadership in the room is second to none. I'm going to open the door and let them play.
"I know how the players will respond. I know the kind of leadership and character there is in the room. I know how they will respond; they will respond the right way."
The Granato family, of course, also is renowned in the game for the play of Tony's younger sister, two-time Olympian Cammi Granato.
"It's special for me because I remember her playing hockey with all the boys," Tony said. "I remember her changing her name to Carl to play in a tournament because girls weren't allowed to play. I saw her putting her ponytail under her helmet so nobody would know she was a girl. I saw all that. There's someone who plays hockey for the love of the game.
"And it's not just Cammi, but all the girls who played in the first Olympics and world championships. They didn't play for any other reason except they loved the game. What they did for the women's game and women's sports, you can't take your hats off enough.
"They didn't listen to, 'No, you can't do this.' Cammi's answer always was, 'Why not?' When she was a little girl, she said, 'I'm going to play for the Blackhawks.' 'What do you mean, you're going to play for the Blackhawks?' 'Well, why not?'
"She heard, 'You can't play in the tournament.' She said, 'Well, why not? I'm a good player.' So all along, that's the way it was. She taught me a lot about the fire inside, the drive to motivate yourself."
A head coach with less than a half-season of experience behind the bench, and no experience at all as a head coach?
Cammi Granato probably would respond: Well, why not?
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," was issued Dec. 2 by Simon and Schuster.