Wisconsin coach Tony Granato says Team USA ‘can compete with anyone in the world’ on Olympic hockey stage

Robert De Niro?  Al Pacino? When they make a movie of the saga of the 2018 USA men’s hockey team, who gets to play you? Who’s your Kurt Russell?

“Yeah, well, I don’t know,” Tony Granato, coach of Team USA and the Wisconsin Badgers, told Land of 10 recently. “First of all, what I like, though — I like how we’re going into this tournament. Russia’s going to have a team with the most NHL experience, when you look at rosters and look at who should do really well.

“I think we’re fighting along with the rest of the middle of the pack as far as personnel. And I don’t think there’s a clear favorite. Russia, I think, is a team that everyone expects to win. I don’t think we’re that far off from them. And I also think with how we play and the way the team is put together, we can compete with anyone in the world. We just have to be the best for 13 days.”

Those 13 days start Wednesday morning, when Team USA opens Winter Olympic tourney play in the Pyeongchang Games against Slovenia. With no NHL players allowed to participate, Granato’s roster hails from all over the map — literally: 17 players from various European leagues, three from the American Hockey League and four from the college ranks.

From 20-year-old Troy Terry to 39-year-old former NHL forward Brian Gionta, it’s a pack of mutts, a gang of pups and old dogs trying to learn new tricks on the fly.

“[Former USA Hockey general manager] Jim [Johannson] said it best: ‘Of the 25 [guys] out there, there’s 24 of them that have never worn an Olympic shirt before,’” said Granato, currently on a 3-week sabbatical from the Badgers’ bench to run the show in South Korea at the invitation of Johannson, an ex-Wisconsin teammate who passed away last month at the age of 53.

‘The one thing that every American player is dreaming of is to put on the USA sweater and represent the country. And once you get that, there’s that sensation that [can translate] to the style of hockey that we like to play.”

— Wisconsin and Team USA men’s hockey coach Tony Granato

“And we have a lot of guys that I think will play the best hockey of their careers. They look at this as one as an opportunity that maybe they thought they’d never have. The communication that we’ve had with these players, you can hear them shaking on the other end of the phone with excitement and anticipation and pride, and we’re going to have to carry that over with how we play.”

The parallels to the USA team of 1980 — the Miracle On Ice squad coached by another Big Ten legend, former Minnesota coach Herb Brooks — are probably inevitable. And, Granato notes, maybe a tad unfair, too.

“I don’t think we need to go into this thinking we have to be a miracle team or have to be against all odds to be successful,” the Wisconsin coach said. “We’re at a different stage with where USA Hockey is.”

It’s certainly a different vibe, given the lack of NHL star power, as well as being the first men’s Olympic team since 1972 that doesn’t feature a former Wisconsin player on the roster. It does, however, have two on the bench in Granato and assistant Chris Chelios, the former NHL great who captained Team USA in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

“I laugh about this, because Chris is such a passionate player,” Granato said. “He loves the game of hockey more than probably anybody else I’ve ever met … he’s a nut that way. He’s the same. Always coaching, the same way, this whole process. Trying to get this team picked, how to prepare for it.

“His commitment, it isn’t just — he’s not just showing up and, you know, standing on the bench. His details on what he’s seen, what he’s put in training, to get our penalty kills ready … for the player he was, that’s the kind of approach he has. I’m so excited. He’s a warrior. He’s a guy you want on your bench.”

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BADGERS TO WATCH IN THE OLYMPICS MEN’S HOCKEY TOURNAMENT

Rene Bourque, F, Canada (Wisconsin, 2000-04)

Chris Chelios, assistant coach, USA (Wisconsin, 1981-83)

Cody Goloubef, D, Canada (Wisconsin, 2007-10)

Tony Granato, coach, USA (Wisconsin, 1983-87; current Badgers men’s coach)

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Granato is the third sitting Badgers coach to take charge of a USA hockey team during the season. Bob Johnson did it with the men at the 1976 games in Innsbruck, Austria; Bob’s son Mark, a member of the 1980 team and now Wisconsin’s women’s hockey coach, did it with the USA women in 2010 at Vancouver.

“He works right down the hall from me,” Granato said of the younger Johnson. “I went down and talked to him about it and he said it was the experience of the 1980s, what it was like, the similarities to this year’s team.

“And obviously, there are a lot of differences, but the one thing that every American player is dreaming of is to put on the USA sweater and represent the country. And once you get that, there’s that sensation that [can translate] to the style of hockey that we like to play. It’s really our strength. But I think what the 1980 team…  what they did for us is, it gave us our confidence, our sense of pride and our style of play.”

That and a killer script.

And speaking of, who gets the part?

Chazz Palminteri?

John Turturro?

“We don’t need to make a movie,” Granato laughed. “We just need to do well while we’re over there.”

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