When head coach Tony Granato took over the Wisconsin men’s hockey program in the spring of 2016, he was agreeing to take stewardship not just of a team, but of an entire culture.
The six national championship banners hanging from the rafters of the Kohl Center represent not just the on-ice achievements of a storied program, but a rich history and tradition of NCAA champions, olympians, NHL and international hockey legends who have passed through Madison in the course of their hockey careers.
Aside from the name on the front of the jersey and the six stars on the back of the collar, the team that Granato inherited from predecessor Mike Eaves bore little resemblance to that tradition. The Badgers had won just nine games in Eaves’ final two years and had put only one player — defenseman Jake McCabe — in the NHL in the preceding three years.
Granato arrested the on-ice skid quickly with a 20-win debut season that raised expectations and restored some of the program’s image, but the work of creating a new culture in Madison would be a longer process.
Now entering his third year as head coach, Granato has reformed the program in his own image with a focus on two traits that drive Badger hockey today: character and professionalism.
The turnaround began with the arrival of a deep, talented and, most importantly, hand-selected recruiting class at the beginning of last season. The freshman class was asked to carry an unusually heavy load on last year’s team, and although the season didn’t produce the results that many expected, Granato credited the freshmen with changing the course of the program nonetheless.
“I thought that class did an outstanding job,” Granato said. “Those were all really impactful players to our program last year, and they’re going to be a huge part of the team this year and for the next couple years to come. I thought that class really turned us in the right direction.”
If last year’s seven-member freshman class started the turnaround, this year’s group — nine strong, an almost unheard-of size for college hockey — is poised to put Wisconsin firmly back on track.
“This group is the same: character, work ethic, grit, obviously some great talent mixed in there,” Granato said of the incoming freshmen. “I’ve bragged them up that I think they’re going to be the foundation of our program for years to come with a lot of the grit and character that they are bringing to our program.”
In strength of numbers alone, Granato has accomplished an impressive feat with his first pair of recruiting classes. In barely over two calendar years, the former Badger and Los Angeles Kings star has transformed the makeup of the program, doing so in a way that has set the tone for the older players on the roster as well.
“We’ve brought in some good character guys, that’s obviously what they’re recruiting,” said senior captain Peter Tischke, one of just two players remaining from Eaves’ tenure. “Our team has grown together; we’re a lot closer than before. We have a new culture of character.”
The newcomers aren’t making their presence felt just by their place on the roster, either. Even before they’ve played a single official collegiate game, the impact this newest freshman class is having on the program can be seen. Where in the past a few players might have stayed on the ice after practice each day to take extra reps or shots, almost the entire freshman class now stays behind after the final whistle sounds, getting extra instruction from Granato or putting shots on net at the opposite end of the ice.
Freshman defenseman K’Andre Miller is leading the movement to stay behind — the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft, a selection of the New York Rangers — and is consistently the last player off the ice, already having team staff half-joking, half grumbling about his extra practice regimen.
Miller and the rest of the freshmen’s attitude fits right in with a team that’s looking to bounce back from a disappointing year in which it failed to live up to early-season hype.
“This summer everyone came in and had a chip on their shoulder because of last year,” Tischke said. “We’re all ready to get after it. Everyone’s worked their hardest, everyone’s coming in at peak performance.”
While the culture overhaul has been masterminded by Granato and the rest of the coaching staff, Tischke has also played an essential part through both his words and his actions. Nearly cut after his freshman year, the senior captain is now the walking, talking embodiment of everything Granato wants the program to represent.
As the sole undrafted player on a defensive corps that is now loaded with NHL talent, Tischke’s had to work hard to maintain his spot in the lineup. The Hinsdale, Illinois native has done so by embracing a state of constant competition, especially with his own teammates. Last season the defenseman took to side skirmishes with the ever-competitive Kyle Hayton, with Tischke attempting to poke every last possible loose puck past an always attentive Hayton. The captain hasn’t developed any distinctive rivalries yet in 2018, but his competitive spirit doesn’t appear to have diminished a bit.
Even with hard work, there still needs to be something else to attract top talents like Miller and fellow defenseman Ty Emberson, a third-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in this spring’s draft.
That’s where the second factor of Granato’s renaissance comes in: professionalism.
Drawing on his own NHL background as a player and coach, Granato has quickly made Wisconsin one of the top destinations for college prospects looking to advance their professional careers. The Badgers have had players leave early for the NHL in each of the past two years: first Luke Kunin after Granato’s first year, followed by Trent Frederic last spring.
Rather than bemoan the loss of important players, Granato has built the expectation that his top talents will leave before they exhaust their eligibility into the system, a function of doing business and a badge of honor that Wisconsin is attracting and developing the best players in the nation.
The best preparation for being a professional hockey player is to act like one, and Granato’s instilled that approach in his players.
“It’s a professional program. We’re treated like pros; we act like pros,” senior forward Seamus Malone said. “If you want to be serious about hockey and come to a place where everyone’s serious about what they do, this is the place to be.”
That message rang loud and clear for Miller as he considered his college destination, and it played a significant role in his eventual decision to choose Wisconsin.
“The people who help you get to the next level here are next to none, they’re really special here,” Miller said. “I knew getting to the next level was going to be my goal, and that made choosing Wisconsin the best for me.”
It’s too early to know how long Miller and his classmates will stay in Madison, or what they might accomplish while members of the program. But chances are that when they leave, their spots will be filled by more top prospects ready to immerse themselves in a newly invigorated Badger hockey culture.