Tony Granato years later tried to tell his wife, Linda, that she didn’t know when he decided he was going to try to resume his hockey playing career after brain surgery.
She knew. Looking back, it was pretty obvious.
It was the same day that Dr. Neil Martin operated on Tony’s brain, removing abnormal blood vessels that were causing headaches and memory loss.
It was 25 years ago Sunday. That the surgery came on Valentine’s Day makes it easy to remember. Not that the Granatos could forget.
Tony was awake after the four-hour surgery and Martin was giving him and a greatly relieved Linda the details in a UCLA Medical Center recovery room. The surgeon put some extra reinforcement in when he fastened the skull back together, and the explanation stuck with Linda.
“Just in case you want to play again.”
That’s when she knew.
Tony had told her before the operation that he was done playing hockey. It seemed like the only possibility after brain surgery.
But now? A renowned neurosurgeon had left open the door, at least slightly.
“I know you really well,” Linda remembers saying, “and I just knew that the odds were if that was possible, you were definitely playing again.”
Tony, now in his fifth season coaching the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, did return to the NHL and played five more seasons after the surgery.
But that was low on the list of concerns as he went into the operating room 25 years ago.
Collision, then contact
The path to Dr. Miller’s operating room started with a play Granato had made countless times. An “innocent play” as he remembers it.
He raced toward a loose puck to negate an icing call during the Jan. 25 game in Hartford. He tried to cut in front of Whalers defenseman Jeff Brown, but their feet collided.
Granato crashed into the boards. He thinks he tried to get his shoulder into the boards first to deflect the blow, but his helmet made contact. His head was hurting, but he tried not to show it.
“I didn’t really think anything of it,” said Gary Shuchuk, a former Badgers player and assistant coach who was Granato’s linemate with the Kings. “We all got hit like that. He didn’t really say anything to us about it.”
Linda, who was watching on TV, had a different reaction. Her husband usually popped right up after collisions. It took him a few more seconds this time.
“There was just something about it that I thought seemed kind of odd,” she said. “So I remember that. But he got up, so I thought, well OK, I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Because I normally didn’t worry. But that one did make me worry.”
Granato played another game back home in Los Angeles two days later despite a headache. He thought maybe it was a sinus infection that had him a little off.
He went to a Super Bowl party at teammate Wayne Gretzky’s house the following day. It was there that he started to recognize memory issues.
Tony woke up with a bad headache in the early hours of Jan. 29, four days after colliding with the boards in Hartford, and asked where the Tylenol was.
Another red flag for Linda.
In seven years of marriage, she never knew Tony to want painkillers.
She directed him to a kitchen cabinet above a basket where Christmas cards from family and friends were collected. When he returned to bed, Tony asked Linda when a close friend had another baby, something he saw in one of the cards.
Another red flag for Linda.
Tony never had been great with names, but it was exceedingly out of the ordinary for him not to recognize good friends.
Tony conceded to Linda that he really was worried and asked his wife to challenge his memory.
“Ask me who our two goalies are right now.”
“Then I shot up in bed,” Linda said. “I thought this is more than just a really bad headache. Because at the time the Kings actually had three goalies, which I know was a little unusual. But that’s not something he would have forgotten.”
Tony only could name one of them.
Linda wanted to call the team doctor, Ronald Kvitne, but Tony couldn’t remember his phone number or even his name. She found the number and made the call. They soon were driving to Centinela Hospital near the Great Western Forum.
The brain scan showed a mass. There was a bleed, but doctors suspected it was a result of the hit in Hartford. They sent Tony home with instructions to spend a week at home. No exercise, no bright lights, no loud noises.
Linda and the Granatos’ four young children tried to make Tony’s surroundings as hospitable as possible, but the rest didn’t improve his headaches.
Imaging showed a larger mass in Tony’s brain when they returned to the hospital for more tests the next week. A doctor said it could have been three things: a tumor, aneurysm or arteriovenous malformation, essentially a tangle of blood vessels.
Surgery was needed to find out.
The Granato family is famously mobile when one of its own needs support. Don Sr. and Natalie for years drove to Madison from their home in the Chicago suburbs to watch three of their sons play for the Badgers.
They and the rest of the family quickly headed to California.
Tony’s sister Christi was living with his family at the time, and she became a source of information for friends to give Linda a break while she tried to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. Christi explained in detail to Shuchuk’s wife, Michelle, how serious things were.
Only that didn’t mesh with what Gary Shuchuk was hearing directly from Tony.
“I’m talking to my wife going, pfft, Tony’s fine. He’s joking around,” Shuchuk said. “We’re getting this other story from his sister saying how serious it is and how close to death he is and all that stuff. Who do you believe? When I saw Tony in the hospital, his head was bandaged but, ‘Nope, I’ll be back in practice the next couple days’ sort of thing.”
Kings teammate Kelly Hrudey got updates from defenseman Rob Blake, who was close with the Granatos. Blake was out for the season because of a torn knee ligament.
“You still feel terribly bad for a player when he gets a significant injury and you know that he needs some kind of surgery that could keep him out for any length of time,” Hrudey said. “But this is a different kind of health issue that has different kinds of consequences. All of us knew the family really well and the kids. It was just so difficult to comprehend.”
‘I can fix this’
Dr. Martin was unsure what he would find when he started the Valentine’s Day surgery on Tony’s left temporal lobe. The operation revealed the tangle of blood vessels.
Martin called to the waiting room, where the Granato family was gathered. Linda remembers hearing the words “I can fix this.”
“The amount of relief that we all felt after he said that was just tremendous,” she said.
The abnormal blood vessels may have been there Tony’s whole life, but the hit in Hartford brought the situation to the forefront. Martin, a renowned neurosurgeon, made it clear that the damage could have been much worse.
“He was on the threshold of a major problem,” Martin told reporters at a March 6, 1996, news conference at the Forum. “If another few days or a week had gone by, it would be more serious.”
Granato faced a long recovery, but Martin after the surgery planted the idea of a return to the ice. A call came from the Kings about a month into his recovery. The team asked if he wanted to participate in the team’s photo day. He was still part of the team, after all, even if he wasn’t going to play again that season and his contract was ending in the summer.
“They wanted me to put a jersey on and stand in the back row and stand on a box or something,” Tony said. “I said no, I’m going to put my skates on.”
He blends in with his Kings teammates, all wearing their white jerseys in that team photo. The most noticeable difference is his hair is short in the picture, shorter for him than fans would recognize in his playing days. Certainly shorter than before half his head was shaved for the surgery.
The truth is that trip to the Forum wasn’t as much about the picture as it was the hockey lifer seeing whether he had the balance and coordination to even think about pursuing his passion again.
He did. And he did.
Doctors say OK
Tony pressed the issue in follow-ups with doctors. Martin gave the thumbs-up in July. So did doctors in Madison and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“I’m sure Linda wouldn’t say she was all-in,” Tony said. “But she was all-in in understanding me as opposed to all-in in saying you’re doing the right thing.”
Linda wasn’t completely comfortable with his planned return, but she was put at ease by hearing what all the doctors had to say. She understood what her husband wanted.
“It changed the way I watched someone I love play hockey,” she said. “Because I’ve never worried about him getting hurt before. He always just popped up. And yeah, he’d had a broken collarbone and stitches here and there and everywhere, a broken foot. He’d had all sorts of different injuries before, but I never really thought about a serious injury.”
Linda wasn’t the only one questioning Tony’s decision to return to hockey in the fall of 1996.
“I think a lot of people gave a, ‘Are you sure?’” he said. “I got a lot of questions: ‘Why are you doing this?’”
“Pretty simple: It’s who I am and I feel I’m OK to do it,” he said. “I don’t feel I’m putting myself in a compromising position.”
Tony and agent Jeff Solomon received some interest once free agency opened in July, but teams wanted their doctors to check in. He signed in August with the San Jose Sharks, and played five more seasons for them.
“That’s the competitor in Tony,” Shuchuk said. “He’ll bounce back from something like that and not let even brain surgery keep him down. That’s his mentality.”
Granato scored 25 goals in his first season in San Jose and won the NHL’s Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.
Hrudey, who also had signed with San Jose as a free agent in the offseason, recalled a carpool conversation during the tail end of the 1996-97 campaign.
The 36-year-old goaltender told the 32-year-old forward that he should be proud of reaching the 20-goal mark in a league where scoring had taken a downturn.
Said Hrudey: “I remember him looking at me and he had a really sincere look on his face, like, ‘Thanks. Wow, I didn’t know people recognized how hard it is to score 20 anymore in this league.’”
Getting tied up with Brown going into the boards in Hartford put Granato on course for brain surgery, but he never blamed the Whalers defenseman. In fact, Brown’s son Caden has signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Granato and the Badgers starting next season.
“When I look back on it, would I have been disappointed in myself if I didn’t come back? I don’t think so,” he said. “But I’m grateful that I got five bonus years. That part was fun.”
The emotion is clear in Linda’s voice when she recalls many of the details of what happened 25 years ago. She said she doesn’t like to think back on a lot of the events because of the fear that was inherent at the time. But there’s another emotion, too.
“We have so much to be thankful for, that we happened to be near a really top-notch medical facility and that Dr. Neil Martin was completely capable of handling what he found,” Linda said. “It was really a day to be grateful.”
Photos: Tony Granato through the years