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Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Column: Explaining the decision to fire Tony Granato

To the surprise of few, Badgers men’s hockey coach Tony Granato was shown the door following multiple seasons of disappointment. How did they get here?

Another disappointing season has come to an end for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team. This year’s team finished dead last in the Big Ten with a dismal record of 13-23-0. Making matters worse, preseason rankings projected the Badgers to finish fourth in the conference. Furthermore, of the seven hockey teams in the Big Ten, five are ranked in the top 20 nationally with a sixth, Notre Dame, receiving 41 votes, essentially ranking 21st. 

Athletic Director Chris McIntosh officially fired coach Tony Granato Monday. He also confirmed that associate head coach Mark Osiecki will not return, but assistant coach Andy Brandt will stay with the team. 

The writing had been on the wall for Granato, and this season felt like a make-or-break campaign to remain head coach. Granato’s performance was simply not good enough for one of the most successful programs in NCAA men’s hockey history. The decision announced by McIntosh should not catch anyone off guard.

Results

The Badgers largely underperformed, disappointing under head coach Tony Granato. In Granato’s seven years as head coach, the Badgers have had five losing seasons, including an abysmal 10-24-3 record last season. 

Even in a good season, like 2020-21, the Badgers underperformed relative to what they were capable of. The 2020-21 team featured star power like Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway, but the Badgers could not produce results in the postseason. In the Big Ten Tournament, the Badgers lost to Minnesota before losing to Bemidji State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 10 days later. 

Wisconsin showed nothing truly impressive in its seven seasons under Granato. They floundered in the big moments, fumbling opportunities to prove Wisconsin is still a men’s hockey powerhouse. The results alone showed the need for a change in leadership. 

Player development

Furthering the need for changes, Wisconsin’s players have shown only minimal signs of development. Wisconsin’s lineup for their last game against Michigan contained nine current NHL Draft picks. Few of these prospects have actually shown why they were selected in the draft. Yet, this is through no fault of their own. Players who are drafted still need development, hence why they do not go straight into the professional setting. Unfortunately, their time under Granato did not provide adequate development, risking their chances to play professionally. 

This includes a draft eligible Charlie Stramel, who prior to the start of the season was touted as a top prospect and was likely to go early in the first round of this year’s draft. However, Stramel’s draft stock has plummeted this year, commonly listed in the mid 30s or 40s in current prospect rankings. 

Development is crucial for recruiting. The best collegiate players should and do have aspirations to play at the next level, that being the NHL. Wisconsin, under Granato, was not developing players who belong in the ranks of the professionals. Recruits comparing Wisconsin to Big Ten rivals would see the difference in development and count that against the Badgers. 

A coaching change gives Wisconsin a chance to develop players to their full potential. Improved player development will take some burden off top recruits to perform immediately while also incentivising more high-end talent to come to Wisconsin. 

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The fans

Attendance at the Kohl Center this season is not reflective of a program that has won six national championships in its history. In fact, if those championships were not called to attention at every game in Madison, a neutral fan who knew nothing of Wisconsin’s hockey history might think they had never won anything. 

Even the most storied teams in sports have poor seasons or even a period of rebuilding where they are not living up to standards. That is understandable, but they do not lose their fanbases. Wisconsin, as storied as the hockey program is, lost its fanbase. 

The Kohl Center was remarkably empty most games this year, and certainly lacked energy. On special event nights that tried to promote engagement with fans, the disappointing attendance was far more noticeable. On “Stripe Out” night, the lack of people in attendance made such a feat impossible. Furthermore, the “Stripe Out” took place against Minnesota, and the Gopher fans showed up in droves. It was a shambolic attempt to engage the crowd and almost worked in favor of the visitors. 

The social media presence of fans was also evident. On nearly every post from the Wisconsin men’s hockey Twitter were replies of “Fire Granato” or other disappointed sentiment. 

Without the fans, every game can feel like an away game. As a recruiting tool, the Kohl Center is a blessing and a curse. As one of the largest arenas in the Big Ten, it could be a loud, boisterous environment. But as one of the largest arenas in the Big Ten, the lack of fans is even more glaring when empty. 

Firing Granato was the right choice for Wisconsin men’s hockey. If the Badgers are to return to prominence, they desperately need a change in leadership. Wisconsin should choose someone who can develop players and, most importantly, win. One thing will bring back the fans and generate excitement around the program once again: winning. 

Whoever the next coach may be will take on a historic program that wants to win. Their changes must reflect that. 

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