Former Olympic Teammates Aim to Steer U.S. to PyeongChang Gold Despite Roster Challenges

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Wednesday August 9th, 2017

They gathered in South Florida for the sunshine and golf, but mostly to see each other again. 

Twenty years had passed since the 1988 Winter Olympics, more than enough time to justify reuniting the United States' men's ice hockey team. So winger Kevin Miller took the lead on logistics, arranging meals and tee times. Center Jim Johannson ordered commemorative wine bottles, decorated by USA Hockey and signed by individual players. Only about half the roster could actually attend on short notice, but the stories were plentiful anyhow. "Just reminiscing about where everyone was and the experiences we had," says forward Tony Granato. 

As the old-timers lounged poolside, though, it would've been impossible to forecast how integral two of them would become to their country's future Olympic hopes. But three decades after finishing seventh in Calgary, one decade after reconvening in Naples, and exactly six months from Wednesday, Johannson and Granato will together lead the Americans into the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, as general manager and head coach, respectively. 

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From the outside, the partnership seems perfect. Johannson has worked for USA Hockey since Sept. 2000, appearing on staffs at 15 consecutive world championships and serving in various management capacities at the previous four Olympics, in addition to his playing experience at the '88 and '92 Games. As for Granato, his relationship with Johannson goes even further back than Calgary. For three seasons in the mid-1980s, they were teammates at the University of Wisconsin, where Granato returned in March 2016 to steer the men's program. No wonder that when Johannson surprised Granato by offering the gig in early July, among the executive's first words were, "My goal getting off this phone is that I have an Olympic coach." 

A difficult task now greets these old friends. The NHL isn't allowing players under contract to attend -- for the first time since ‘94 -- thereby eliminating no-duh choices like Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, et al. Team USA's northern neighbors will face similar talent restrictions, largely limited to expats skating overseas and minor-leaguers signed to AHL-only deals, but Canada already gained a head start by dispatching squads to two tune-up tournaments in Russia this month. The Americans similarly plan to send European-based players to the Deutschland Cup this November, but still won't meet as a full squad until arriving in South Korea. 

"No exhibition games, not a long time with practices to get ready," Granato says. "Lots of challenges with the scheduling and with putting this team together, but I also think there's lots to get excited about."

In the meantime, there's plenty to prepare. When he spoke with SI.com earlier this week, Johannson estimated that he had reached between 85 and 90 candidates, with roughly 60 percent of those currently signed to European clubs, and the rest evenly split between the AHL and NCAA ranks. The possibility remains that some veteran free agents -- like, say, Brian Gionta or Matt Cullen -- could take personal farewell tours on the international circuit instead of re-upping in the NHL, but Johannson isn't being pushy. "I've talked to a couple of those guys," he says. "They're on our radar, but they're still all making their decisions for what's best for their family." He plans to submit a preliminary list later this month, and finalize the roster by Oct. 15.

Granato, meanwhile, will remain with the Badgers throughout the season, missing time only for the Deutschland Cup and PyeongChang. "Yep," he said earlier this week, squeezing an interview between on-ice sessions at hockey school in Madison, Wisc., "it'll be a busy year for me." Keeping in touch with the Olympians will be paramount, so Granato plans to have assistant coaches speaking weekly with them, whether by phone conversations or Skype film sessions. "I want them to feel comfortable with us as this whole process goes along," he says, "so when we get there, there's no surprises."

Fortunately, that shouldn't happen among Granato's staff. Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios was Granato's teammate at the 1991 Canada Cup, and won the 1983 national title alongside Johannson at Wisconsin, the year before Granato matriculated. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Scott Young skated beside Johannson and Granato on the ‘88 Olympic team. Yale head coach Keith Allain has stood with Granato on various Team USA benches throughout the years, just like the fourth and final assistant, Ron Rolston. "We're very similar in a lot of ways," Granato says. "Even though we haven't coached our players previously, I don't think it'll take a long time to get them feeling comfortable with us and what we expect."

As for the two men leading the charge, seeking to guide the Americans to their first gold medal since the 1980 Miracle on Ice? Well, there's plenty of history baked there too.

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The students toiled beneath the bleachers at Camp Randall Stadium, sweating through lifts in the crowded Wisconsin weight room. "Dark, dingy, the air wasn't great," Johannson says. "Completely not uncommon to have six to eight different sports in there." Stepping outside to run sprints on the football field barely provided any respite from the summer heat, either. But at least any stragglers could rely on the booming, motivating voice of Tony Granato.

"I'm sure we sat around and talked about girls and life and whatever, but you remember the training and the competitive times," Johannson says. "I think the was a guy who found ways to bring guys together. I don't recall a coach ever saying, 'Boy, Granato didn't have the energy today.'"

It wasn't the first time their paths had crossed. Both figure they first met at a festival camp for world juniors as teenagers (though neither could remember the precise date). They were chosen 10 picks apart in the 1982 NHL draft -- Granato went No. 120 to the Rangers, Johannson at No. 130 to Hartford. They played on the same line for a stretch at Wisconsin, and lived together for a few months one summer, when all those exhausting workouts at Camp Randall took place. Late in the ‘85-86 season, both broke their collarbones within a week's span; then a senior, Johannson vividly remembers sitting at home while the Badgers visited North Dakota, watching the series on television and commiserating with Granato. 

Ask these hockey lifers what they admire in the other, though, and you'll get wildly different answers. Johansson says he's never encountered a fiercer competitor than Granato, who strung together a 13-season, 773-game NHL career, and later coached the Avalanche for two-plus season. Once, when Granato accepted an invitation from Johannson to guest-teach at a world junior camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., he snapped three sticks within 40 minutes during shooting drills. Soon, the running joke became that they needed to get Granato tested for PEDs. "Tony, I don't know if I can have you back," Johannson told him with a smile. "You're killing the budget. I can't have overages on my guest coaches." 

Granato, on the other hand, points to Johannson's laidback personality and recognizable laugh. "He's just so easy-going and loves life," Granato says. "I think he's one of the guys who lives in the moment better than most of us." And his selflessness on the national team. "A lot of players who are trying to play for pro contracts would try to make teams, try to get power play ice time, would think of themselves first," Granato says. "Jimmy's strength was that he could always find a way to do the absolute opposite. He just sees the big picture. Nothing individual, nothing selfish about him. He's looking out for the best interest of the group, the team, the organization." 

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Ever since Team USA announced its management team for PyeongChang last week, the memories have rushed back. What Granato and Johannson experienced in '88 -- then as minor pros with only one season of experience apiece in the now-defunct IHL -- isn't altogether unlike what their players will face next February. The Americans didn't medal in Calgary, didn't even advance beyond the group stage. But they still remember specifics, like the 7-5 loss to powerhouse Soviet Union. ("Probably the most exciting game I've ever played in," Granato says.) And the unforgettable thrill of slipping into their star-spangled sweaters, relative unknowns gifted the chance of a lifetime.

"You'd think living together and traveling together and eating together, for every hour of every day, there would be some I'm tired of that guy, I've had enough of him," Granato says. "And I don't remember any of that. That was a special group of guys."

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