In 1988-89, the Rangers boasted a pair of rookies who had an immediate impact. Of course, Brian Leetch is well known. Following a 17-game cameo fresh out of Wisconsin in ’87-88, he scored 23 goals and had 71 points to win the Calder Trophy. Number 2 would go on to bigger and better things.
While Leetch was a huge part of a bright future for the club, there was another first-year player who certainly proved he belonged. That would be Tony Granato. Selected in the sixth round back in 1982, the University of Wisconsin product actually played with future starting goalie Mike Richter for the Badgers. So, the Rangers did quite well at drafting player who played at Wisconsin.
Unlike Leetch, who lasted one year in Wisconsin before making the jump to the NHL, Granato played all four seasons for the Badgers between ’83-84 to ’86-87. He was a good scorer totaling 100 goals and 210 points. That included 73 points (28-45-73) his senior year.
After a successful college hockey career, Granato played for the Colorado Rangers of the International Hockey League (IHL) in ’87-88. Ironically, so too did his former Badger teammate Richter. Other notables included Darren Turcotte, Ulf Dahlen and Ron Duguay. In 21 games, Granato performed well by scoring 13 goals with 14 assists and 27 points.
Afterwards, he joined the U.S. National Team. That roster featured Leetch, Richter, Kevin Stevens and Craig Janney. While Leetch went on to debut with the Blueshirts, Granato had to wait until the following season.
For a sixth round pick who went number 120 back when the league only had 21 teams, Granato impressed fans with his quick wrist shot. It found twine 36 times which paced the ’88-89 Rangers. Of the 36, 28 came at even strength to also lead the team. Interestingly, he also had the most shorthanded goals with four to best Leetch and Brian Mullen, who both had three.
Among the highlights were recording three hat tricks including a four-goal game versus Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 1988. That came a week after he scored his first NHL goal on a nice pass from popular enforcer Chris Nilan.
Granato also added 27 assists. In 78 games, he finished with 63 points, a plus-17 rating and 140 penalty minutes. His first season was recognized. He finished third for the Calder trailing winning teammate Leetch and Trevor Linden. Kind of poetic in a sense considering Leetch and Linden would meet five years later when the Rangers played the Canucks for the Stanley Cup.
The ’88-89 Rangers qualified for the playoffs with a 37-35-8 record giving them 82 points. However, their postseason was short-lived due to the Mario Lemieux led Penguins, who swept them in the Patrick Division Semifinals. Granato had a goal and assist while Leetch put up three goals and two helpers to tie Tomas Sandstrom for the team lead.
Also in that series, Richter debuted making one start in Game Four where the Pens edged the Rangers 4-3 to eliminate them. Although they lost in four straight, Ranger fans had plenty of reason for excitement. With a bright future that included Leetch, Richter, Granato and late call-up Turcotte, things were looking up.
It was early in the ’89-90 season that a surprising trade was made by first-year General Manager Neil Smith. On Jan. 20, 1990, he dealt Granato and Sandstrom to the Kings for Bernie Nicholls. At the time, Granato had 25 points (7-18-25) in 37 games. Also a good Ranger, Sandstrom had 38 points (19-19-38) with 100 penalty minutes over 48 contests.
The trade definitely was a disappointment for me. I had become a fan of Granato and liked Sandstrom, who led the team in scoring the previous season. But Smith had other ideas. By acquiring the proven Nicholls, he decided to turn the Rangers into more serious players.
As it turned out, Nicholls lasted a year and a half before he was packaged with Louie DeBrusk, Steven Rice and future considerations for Mark Messier on Oct. 4, 1991. In essence, Smith turned Sandstrom and Granato into Messier and Jeff Beukeboom, who was later sent to complete the deal. Ironic how it worked out.
In regards to Sandstrom and Granato, they became part of a contending Kings roster that featured Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri. In fact, Granato put up three consecutive 30-goal seasons between ’90-91 through ’92-93. He totaled 106 goals including a career best 82 points (37-45-82) during ’92-93. A season that saw him and Sandstrom play key parts in the Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals appearance against the Canadiens.
During their run, Granato had six goals and 11 assists while Sandstrom produced eight goals and 17 assists. Gretzky carried Los Angeles past the Maple Leafs in a memorable seven-game upset in the Western Conference Finals. He had 40 points (15-25-40) to lead all scorers. Unfortunately, the Kings fell short in five games to Montreal.
Following that season, the Kings fell apart in ’93-94 missing the postseason. Granato battled injuries that season, posting just seven goals and 21 points in 50 games. He spent two more injury riddled seasons in Hollywood before signing with the Sharks.
Granato put up 25 goals and 40 points in ’96-97 to win the Masterton Trophy. The last one where he eclipsed 20 goals. He would finish his career in San Jose. His last year was ’00-01. For his career, he recorded 248 goals and 244 assists for 492 points in 774 games with 1,425 penalty minutes.
The former Ranger moved onto a successful career as a coach. He was an assistant with the Avalanche and head coach. Colorado qualified for the playoffs twice in three seasons Granato spent behind the bench. He also was a top assistant with the Penguins and Red Wings.
Eventually, things came full circle with Granato returning to Wisconsin to take over head coaching duties in ’16-17. Although record wise they haven’t had a lot of success in the Big Ten, Granato has restored pride to the Badgers. Under his guidance, they’ve produced current NHL players Luke Kunin, Trent Frederic, K’Andre Miller and Cole Caufield.
Granato was recently inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame in 2020. A well deserved honor. A hockey lifer, the 57-year old American from Downers Grove, Illinois has returned home. After leading the Badgers to the Big Ten title last year, it’s been a tough ’21-22 season. They’re 9-20-3 overall.
How do I view Granato, whose short stint on Broadway indirectly resulted in his Rangers success leading to Messier helping the franchise win their first Cup in 54 years? As a good player, who didn’t back down from anyone. The former number 18 went onto a respected career even coming back from a brain injury due to a serious hit to the head. His perseverance in ’96-97 and surprising production as a Shark won him the Masterton for his inspiring comeback season.
All this time later, I still have a Granato ’89-90 rookie card somewhere. Whether O-Pee-Chee or Topps, it remains a nice card to have. Once a Ranger, always a Ranger!