BUFFALO, N.Y. — Tony Granato can laugh now in recalling how angry he was at his brother Don for giving up goaltending at 15 and switching to forward.
Tony regarded his younger sibling as one of the better goalies he faced, even at three years younger, and worried Don was throwing away his future for not wanting to ride the bench every second game as part of a rotation.
“I basically said, `This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard you say,’” the Wisconsin coach and former NHL player said.
That might have been the last time Tony questioned his brother’s life decisions.
Not only did Don Granato teach himself the position by spending hours poring over video — mostly of Wayne Gretzky — to learn the nuances of scoring, he followed in Tony’s footsteps four years later by landing a scholarship from Wisconsin.
“It was really an incredible feat,” Tony Granato said. “That’s where I learned there’s more than just being a hockey player, and there’s a special thinking part of the game that he has that I don’t have.”
The Granato family hockey pecking order is daunting. Tony played 13 NHL seasons and sister Cammi is a two-time Olympian, the first female Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and a scout for the NHL expansion team Seattle Kraken. Another brother, Rob, also played Division I hockey.
Yet the Buffalo Sabres interim coach is known by his siblings as “the smart one.”
“There’s really a simple reason for that,” Don Granato explains. “When you have a brother who’s three years older, and he’s a bit of a bully, you have no option.
“You’re not going to win by brawn,” he said, chuckling. “You had to figure out tactics.”
At 53, Granato might finally be emerging out of their shadows a month into his new role following Ralph Krueger’s dismissal.
Taking over a team in the midst of an 18-game winless skid, Granato has coaxed a competitive edge out of a young and injury-depleted roster and one that just lost captain Jack Eichel for the rest of what has been a miserable season. The last-place Sabres are 4-2-2 in their past eight following an 0-5-1 start under Granato.
His first NHL head-coaching opportunity comes after spending 27 years crisscrossing the continent, working in most every pro league as a coach and assistant, and five years at USA Hockey’s developmental program.
Granato leaned on those experiences in simplifying Buffalo’s approach by emphasizing speed and forechecking. And he eased his players’ frustrations by focusing on making gradual improvements.
“My message to the team the first day I took over was just that: `This streak is not going to define us. So just stop. Stop the worries. Stop the concern, the anxiety,’” Granato said. “I didn’t want to win just one game. I want us to win consistently.”
He didn’t veer from his message when Buffalo’s skid hit 18 after blowing a three-goal, third-period lead in a 4-3 overtime loss to Philadelphia on March 29. Two days later, with Buffalo up 4-1 entering the third period against Philadelphia, Granato’s put aside providing a pep talk by instead saying he was placing ownership on his players in an eventual 6-1 victory.
“A big part of coaching is knowing when to get out of the way,” Granato said. “We want our guys to become independently strong, we want to empower them. That’s a process. Any time you can hand that off to the group, that helps that process.”
Granato’s calming influence is reflected in what Cammi once said about her brother in a story published by USA Hockey: “Donnie was the one who could talk you through mentally. He was a guy you could have a lengthy conversation with and you’d feel so much better when you were done.”
Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin has enjoyed a boost of confidence under Granato.
“I love him as a coach,” Dahlin said. “We do all the things he says, and it works. He makes all the players very confident. Yeah, he’s doing something special.”
Opposing coaches have noticed a difference.
“They’re not sitting back as much in the neutral zone. They seem to be playing more on their toes,” New York Rangers coach David Quinn said.
The sample size is small, but Granato has emerged as a candidate to take over on a full-time basis.
“I think from the beginning, I always thought Donnie should be part of this conversation regardless of what happens,” general manager Kevyn Adams said. “What I see right now out of our team is a team that’s playing with a purpose.“
Granato doesn’t lack in qualifications.
He’s twice worked as an NHL assistant under Joel Quenneville. At the AHL level, he’s coached against Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, Mike Sullivan and Bruce Boudreau. With USA Hockey, Granato developed players such as Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Boston’s Charlie McAvoy.
Granato is comfortable with his journey, believing every step has been valuable, while staying in the moment and refusing to look ahead.
“This feels natural. I don’t know if I would’ve felt that way 10 years ago,” he said. “No matter what happens, we’ll all be OK.”
His minor-league experience prepared him for the chaos of this season and uncertainty of an ever-changing roster, with three players traded over the past two weeks. His time developing teens at USA Hockey is also considered a plus with salary-cap dynamics forcing teams to get more production out of younger players.
Tony Granato is pleased his brother is finally gaining attention. He remembers Don breaking down video on a VCR he received for his 15th birthday.
“He would dissect the game to talk about different things, and we’re kids, and we’re like, `Come on, Donnie, stop,” he recalled. “But he always thought of the game in a tactical way.”
The smart one.
“That’s correct,” Tony Granato said. “Cammi and I and Robbie were all on emotion and energy. Donnie could think it through and say, `Woah, slow down here.′ Yes, that is 100% accurate.”