Coming back from a potential career-ending brain injury, Tony Granato’s tenure with the San Jose Sharks was an inspirational time.
When he joined the San Jose Sharks, he was at the tail-end of his career. However, arriving in San Jose symbolized an important juncture in the career of Tony Granato, one that emphasized his character and his resilience.
In early 1996, while a member of the Los Angeles Kings, Granato suffered a serious head injury during a game, which resulted in bleeding on the left lobe of the brain. The severity of the injury immediately cast doubt on whether the winger would ever play hockey again.
After undergoing successful brain surgery, though, Granato worked his way back into playing shape, both physically and mentally. Granato saw interest from the Sharks, signing with the club in August 1996. In San Jose, the native of Downers Grove, IL, would enjoy a career resurgence, playing for the Sharks for five seasons before retiring in 2001.
In this installment of my “30 Sharks” series for San Jose Hockey Now, I speak with Tony Granato, who elaborates on what he went through to return to form following surgery and how he helped a rebuilding team succeed.
A Time of Determination and Resilience
By 1996, Tony Granato was enjoying a successful career in the NHL. While the Kings were going through a rebuild at the time, the 31-year-old was producing at a high level. On January 25 of that year, however, in a game against the Hartford Whalers, Granato would suffer a serious head injury that resulted in bleeding on the left lobe of the brain.”
To put it mildly, it was an uncertain time for the Wisconsin alum.
“I had the injury in late January and surgery in February,” Granato remembered. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to compete after coming out of the surgery or wasn’t sure I’d be cleared to play or have the chance to play.”
Following surgery, while successful, Granato would be faced with an uphill climb had he any hopes of playing hockey again. Slowly but surely, the winger fought back.
“As the healing process went on and my activities started to increase and the doctors allowed me to do a little bit more training and a little more working out and be more active, I started to feel like I still had not only my passion to play again but I felt like I had my athleticism,” Granato reflected. “If the doctors, at some point, did clear me, I’d consider coming back to play. So, I think it was just about baby steps and things happening along the way like starting light exercise, then seeing the doctor a couple of weeks later, and okay, pick it up and do a little bit more. A few months into it, I was training pretty hard — not as hard as you need to do for an NHL season — but, with the progression I was making, I thought I might be able to get back to the training that I would need to to try to get back on the ice and see if I could play again. So, I got more clearance and got back on the ice.”
While a clean bill of health was certainly a priority, Granato was intently focused on resuming his playing career.
“The main concern was would I be able to play at the level that I need to not only to stay healthy but as importantly, that I would be able to help somebody and be able to make it,” Granato noted. “And once I got on the ice and felt confident in that, then I went through all of the medical protocol, seeing different doctors around the country. I started with my doctor, Neil Martin, who is a phenomenal doctor at UCLA. He cleared me. Then, I went to the Mayo Clinic to see another specialist just to see what risks I would be at if I returned to play and all of the medical people felt that maybe if I felt comfortable enough and felt good enough on the ice and I could play at the level I needed to play at, then I would be given the green light to go. Then, in early August, we made that decision and I signed with San Jose.”
It is difficult to think of many players who endured a similar process than Tony Granato did in the lead-up to joining the Sharks. Nevertheless, the former NHLer is proud looking back on this time and has certainly been the better for it.
It was a season to remember: Granato was third on the Sharks with 25 goals and was a Commissioner’s Selection for the 1997 All-Star Game. Held at San Jose Arena, Granato received a thunderous applause when he was introduced to the home crowd. For his perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey, Granato would win the Bill Masterton Trophy.
A Fresh Start
Signing with the San Jose Sharks in August 1996 signaled more than one new chapter for Tony Granato.
In addition to coming back from a potentially career-ending injury, Granato’s arrival in San Jose marked a fresh start as a key veteran to a rebuilding team.
“It was a great experience,” beamed the former winger. “When I joined [the Sharks], they were at the bottom of the league. Things weren’t looking very promising there. Then, [Sharks GM] Dean Lombardi wanted to change the culture there and bring in some veteran players that had gone through some different challenges in their careers to see if they could change a little bit of what the locker room was like, what it was like to be a Shark, and bring some experience into the room, and I was fortunate enough to be one of those guys.”
The club’s improvement after that first year saw the Sharks go from 47 points in 1995-96 to 62 in 1996-97. Some may have suggested that the improvement was minor given that the Sharks finished seventh in the Pacific Division for a second-straight year, but it was an improvement nonetheless.
“That first year, there was a slight improvement, some energy, and some excitement with the team,” Granato said. “Bernie [Nicholls] was there and a few other veteran players came along that year to teach some of the younger players — Patty Marleau, Marco Sturm, Jeff Friesen were three of the young guys coming into the organization at the time. The young D, as well — [Mike] Rathje was there. So, there were some good, young players there with some raw, lack of experience, and the older players there were trying to help get things going.”
After playing for Al Sims in his first season in San Jose, Granato and his teammates received a shot in the arm entering the 1997-98 campaign. Just prior to the season kicking off, Dean Lombardi hired veteran bench boss Darryl Sutter to take over head coaching duties in San Jose.
“When Darryl came in, he changed it completely,” Granato recalled. “He demanded a lot from the group. He asked the players to change in lots of different ways and how they approached the game. He made a huge impact on developing winners and competitors and different styles of play than maybe previously played in San Jose. It didn’t take long for him to have his impact on the team and that was the start of a tremendous run by that organization.
“Dean, just thinking about how he was putting his pieces together and Darryl, coming in and changing the culture and what it meant to be a Shark and how they were going to play and it carried on for many, many years and probably still does. What those two did in building that franchise was tremendously important for the success of the franchise well after they were gone.”
Reminiscing About a Memorable Tenure
The San Jose Sharks remain one of the most positive and influential stops in not only Tony Granato’s hockey career but in his life.
When I asked Granato about his favorite moments with the franchise, it was admittedly a broad question, to say the least. Still, the former Shark was happy to reflect on this happy juncture in his career.
“Well, lots of things came back to my mind right away,” Granato said, chuckling. “My experience there was wonderful. It was a great place to live. They were an organization that was trying to establish itself, gain some momentum, and build something special. So, to be part of the early stages of that was rewarding for lots of different reasons. Patty Marleau, thinking about him coming in, and Marco Sturm and Jeff Friesen, those younger guys that came in and had a big impact when they got there, to watch that part of it was really special.”
He continued: “But, I look back at some of the people who are still with the organization. [Longtime Sharks equipment manager] Mikey Aldridge is one of them who I talk to often and is a dear friend. When I think of the Sharks, I think of his contributions; and the time we had together with a lot of the other staff, too. Gary Suter. In my last four seasons of professional hockey, I played with Gary. We were freshmen at the University of Wisconsin together. That was a thrill to be able to do that.”
While the Sharks weren’t able to win the Stanley Cup, Granato is nonetheless filled with warm feelings and rich memories from his time in Northern California.
“We didn’t win as far as winning the Stanley Cup or having a long run in the playoffs, but what we did do was establish a start of something that was going to be special for a long, long time,” Granato stressed. “You look back and you see the building pieces each and every year that Dean made of bringing in older veteran players with [Adam Graves] coming along, Todd Gill, Doug Bodger, Kelly Hrudey, who’s someone I had a chance to play with again.
“We had a lot of great players who were great people, who gave the organization the momentum to get some respect by helping the younger players along and get their careers up and running. So, it was special for lots of reasons. I was lucky and enjoyed five years there. I loved it, I miss it, and just grateful for the time I had there.”
In five seasons with the San Jose Sharks, Tony Granato played in 278 games, scoring 57 goals and 42 assists for 99 points. He also scored a pair of goals and assists in 23 playoff games with the Sharks, something that was merely a pipe dream for the club on Granato’s arrival in 1996.
In early 1996, most doubted — and feared — that Tony Granato would never play hockey again. Not only did he fight back to earn a second chance with the Sharks, but Granato would extend his playing career another five years before retiring on his own terms in 2001.
Shortly following his playing career, the former winger transitioned into the coaching ranks where he continues to enjoy a successful run.
After stops — either as a head coach or an assistant — in Colorado, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, Granato returned to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, in 2016, to be men’s ice hockey head coach. He even earned the honor of coaching Team USA at the 2018 Olympics. In fact, for his vast contributions to hockey as a player and as a coach, Granato was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020.
At a critical juncture in his life and in the Sharks’, Tony Granato and the San Jose Sharks seemed to find each other at just the right time. The player received a new lease on life while the team was building towards great success — something that wouldn’t have been possible without veterans like Granato.
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