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The hockey coach who will shoot for the impossible in PyeongChang

In 1980, the U.S.men's hockey team brought home Olympic gold -- and it hasn't happened since. Now 38 years later, Tony Granato hopes to do the same as head coach at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. Sebastian Widmann/Bongarts/Getty Images

Tony Granato was a 15-year-old rink rat from Downer's Grove, Illinois, when he first heard ABC's Al Michaels ask, "Do you believe in miracles?" As he recalls from that night in 1980, "I watched the game on the floor of my parents' bedroom. Seeing the Americans celebrate that night made me want to succeed in hockey."

Now, 38 years and 10 Winter Games later, fans of the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team are being asked, "Do you believe in Tony Granato?"

The former Wisconsin and NHL star and current Badger head coach has been tasked with shepherding a loose-knit collection of European players, minor leaguers, collegians and hangers-on to PyeongChang for the 2018 Olympics. They hope to bring home a medal, preferably -- albeit improbably -- the first gold one for America since 1980.

There is at least one man who does believe in Granato. Mark Johnson was on the ice that Friday night, Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid. The Wisconsin collegian was keeping the puck away from the big bad Red Army as Michaels counted down the final seconds of Team USA's 4-3 upset over the Soviet Union in the semifinal game.

"Tony's the perfect fit," says Johnson, who went on to a stellar NHL career before returning to his alma mater, where he's been the women's coach since 2002. "He knows hockey and players as well as anyone. He's a great competitor and communicator. And he knows what the importance of playing in an Olympics, coaching in the Olympics, is like."

In some ways, former U.S. head coach Herb Brooks had it easier than Granato when he set out for Lake Placid with a bunch of college kids to take on the Soviets. He had the foresight to winnow down the roster with a 300-question psychological test, and the time to forge the players together with a 61-game exhibition schedule.

Granato, on the other hand, was first asked to coach the team last July by USA Hockey's Jim Johannson, a former Olympic teammate and another ex-Badger. The NHL had announced in April that it was declining to participate in the Olympics for the first time in 20 years, leading USA Hockey to organize a search party. What better choice than Granato, who had college, Olympic and pro experience as a player and a coach, and who knows pretty much everybody in the family of hockey -- in part because a third of them seem to be his actual relatives?

"When I told my wife, Linda, I was kind of like, 'Hey, Hon, guess what?' When I asked our athletic director, Barry Alvarez, if I could do it, he first assumed I was going to have to give up my day job for a year. But I told him, no, I was going to continue to coach the men's team here."

Indeed, Granato has been multitasking ever since he was officially named the Olympic coach at the beginning of August. Back when Johnson coached the U.S. Women's National Team at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, he took a sabbatical from Wisconsin. "Different deal," says Johnson. "USA Hockey, not to mention Canada, had year-round programs in place for the women. This year, the men had to change on the fly."

Besides their ties to Madison, Granato and Johnson, whose father was the legendary coach, "Badger Bob" Johnson, have another common line on their resume that works to their advantage. In order to become head coaches at their alma mater, they had to complete their degrees. "It definitely made me a better coach," says Johnson.

"It was a fantastic experience," says Granato, who was 16 credits shy when he became a 52-year-old student the summer before he took over as coach for the 2016-17 season. "I got to appreciate what the demands of being a student and an athlete are like -- I know what they have to do before and after practice. From my professors, I learned different ways to communicate, ways that help me get my points across to players -- some of them need to see film, some need me to draw it on a whiteboard, some only need me to whisper in their ear.

"And I acquired a whole new set of organizational skills to attend class, write papers and coach the team. After spending two semesters balancing those responsibilities, the idea of coaching two hockey teams at once didn't seem so crazy to me."

The only dispensation that Granato received in order to get his degree in Human Development and Family Studies was that the department waived the qualification that he get an internship. Apparently, raising four children, all of whom graduated before he did last June, satisfied that requirement.

How were Granato's grades, by the way?

"Better than they were when I was 21," he says.

Now, for extra credit, he will have to form a family of 25 players in a week. How will he do that? "Well, I can show them Miracle with Kurt Russell," he says. "Actually, I'm partial to the earlier movie about the team, Miracle on Ice, with Karl Malden as Herb Brooks."

So what's a day in the life of a man with two coaching jobs like? Well, let's pick it up at 3 p.m. on Dec. 5, three days before Notre Dame would come into the Kohl Center to play two games with the Badgers, and 66 days before the members of the USA Team would assemble in South Korea.

Granato is in the lobby of the LaBahn Arena, where the team practices, filming an interview for "Badger Hockey Digest" with Brian Posick, the voice of Wisconsin men's hockey. There's an easy rapport between them that comes with familiarity and the shared love of hockey -- Brian's daughter, Maddie, is a freshman forward for the Badgers' women's team. They replay the just-completed split with Minnesota, preview the games with the red-hot Fighting Irish and remind fans of the Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday.

"Before Tony got here," says Posick, "I knew of him, but I didn't really know him. I saw how he changed the environment for a team that won eight games the year before and coached them to 20 wins and nearly the NCAA tournament. He brought the same determination and dedication that he brought to the NHL. You need that to stand 5-10 and deliver for 13 years. "

At the ensuing 4 p.m. practice, Granato lets his assistants, Mark Osiecki and Mark Strobel, run the show. Still, he participates in the drills, showing off the same hands that set a Ranger rookie goal-scoring record (36) in 1988-89 and racked up 82 points (37/45) for the Kings in 1992-93. He's clearly pleased at the intensity of a tight, quarter-ice 3-on-3 drill to end the practice, but when one of his players gets too hot under the collar, he gently takes him aside.

Afterward, he meets with the media to talk about Notre Dame and the history of the rivalry. The only time the Olympics comes up is when he's asked about the possibility of sophomore center Trent Frederic making the team. "We'll see," says Granato, who's not giving anything away until the team is named at the NHL Winter Classic at CitiField on Jan. 1. "He's played well enough."

Except for a trip to Augsburg, Germany, for the Deutschland Cup, a mid-November tournament in which Team USA lost to Slovakia, Russia and Germany, Granato has been working remotely with the Olympic team via phone and Skype with Johannson and his assistant coaches, former Badger Chris Chelios, Scott Young, Ron Rolston and Keith Allain. "It's a great group," says Granato. "I trust them, and I enjoy working with them."

The last order of Dec. 5 is to head over to the Great Dane Pub in the Hilldale Shopping Center at the west end of Madison to sit with Prosick for their regular radio show. There they sit in the middle of the dining room, talking hockey and taking calls while the regulars play shuffleboard and shoot pool in the corner. It's a little like Madison itself -- the kind of place you want to come back to.

At the end of the show, Granato does some signing and schmoozing with the patrons as he heads toward the door for home. He has an early morning meeting with Osiecki and Strobel and director of operations Shane Connelly to go over the recruiting plans for the next three seasons and practice plans for Notre Dame. After that, there's a Big Ten media conference call and a check-in with Johannson on the Olympic prospects.

What will the team look like? Well, he does have the services of captain Brian Gionta, the 5-foot-7, 15-year veteran, and he'll probably pick four Yale Gen Xers whom Allain coached, as well as a bunch of guys named Ryan (Malone, Stoa, Lasch, Zapolski, Gunderson). As for the collegiate players, there's Frederic and Boston University's Jordan Greenway, whose brother J.D. plays for Granato, and Troy Terry from the University of Denver.

"The Olympic talk is starting to pick up in Madison," says Prosick. "More and more people are asking Tony to sign sweaters that say 'Team USA.' There is this tremendous sense of pride that Tony is continuing the Wisconsin tradition in the Olympics."

There is also the Granato tradition -- Tony's sister Cammi was on the 1998 gold-winning USA team in Nagano.

"That thrill of winning in the Olympics, not just playing, is something that Tony can convey to this team," says Johnson. "We've talked about it a little. Nobody knew who we were in 1980, either. Nobody expected us to win."

Who knows? Al Michaels, who will again be calling Olympic hockey, might be asking the same question.

It would be something if the answers were the same.