By Scott Burnside (The Athletic)
This was all happening so blasted fast for Don Granato. This whole life and death thing sneaking up on him in a way he couldn’t have possibly imagined.
One day late in training camp he felt a bit run down. Next thing he knew a team of doctors had stormed into his room at Buffalo General Hospital and told him they’re putting him under. Now.
The hockey lifer and current assistant coach with the Buffalo Sabres was actually holding his phone in his hand trying to explain to his brother Tony, the head coach at the University of Wisconsin, what was happening.
But the doctors were having none of it.
“I told him, Tone, they’re putting me out and I don’t know what can really happen,” Granato recalled in his first interview since his dramatic brush with death. “They got the mask on me, the anesthesiologist, as I’m on the phone. And the doctor’s like, ‘you have got to listen to me right now, right now, you have no more time left.’
“It was wild stuff.”
Wild doesn’t really seem to cover it.
But let’s back up a bit.
Granato is part of one of America’s first families of hockey.
Heralding from Downers Grove, Illinois, the Granato clan includes six children in all. Tony Granato was a New York Rangers draft pick who played 774 NHL games and then coached in the NHL with three teams before moving into the college ranks.
Sister Cammi Granato is a Hockey Hall of Famer and U.S. Olympian who is now a scout with the expansion Seattle franchise. Brother-in-law Ray Ferraro is one of the top analysts in the game and a former NHLer.
As for Don Granato, he had just taken a job with Ralph Krueger’s staff in Buffalo after serving on Joel Quenneville’s staff in Chicago and before that directing the National Team Development Program in Michigan with both the U-18 and U-17 programs.
It was during preseason and the Sabres had played at home against Columbus on Sept. 25.
Granato was feeling a bit punky, a bit rundown.
Preseason is a grind with compact travel and multiple workout sessions every day.
The next morning he called Krueger, with whom he has quickly developed a close bond.
Granato was worried about spreading an illness to the players so it was decided he should take the day off.
He then conferred with the team trainers and doctor. The doctor was perplexed, so he suggested he could get more tests done more expeditiously if Granato went to the emergency room.
He ended up being at the hospital from 1 p.m. until 1 a.m. the next morning.
“And what they find out is that I have a bacteria in my blood,” Granato explained.
It was a strep bacteria, not like strep throat, but streptococcus bacteria that they believed was at the heart of Granato’s illness.
They ran some blood work and did advanced tests to try and determine the rate of growth of the bacteria.
“But there was more going on,” Granato said.
A lot more as it turned out.
At about 1 a.m., a weary and still ill Granato got the word to head home for the night.
But at 5 a.m., the team doctor called Granato to ask if he could get back to the hospital. So at 6 a.m., Granato is back at the hospital and now is being admitted as an in-patient.
Later that morning things took a dramatic turn for the worse when seemingly out of nowhere Granato began coughing up phlegm and blood.
“From there it just accelerated,” Granato said.
The bacteria had made its way into Granato’s bloodstream, “and the pneumonia took over my lungs and I basically had respiratory failure later that day,” the 52-year-old said.
The coughing spells became especially pronounced between 10 a.m. and noon that day.
“Then by about 6 p.m., I was having respiratory failure,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe. My oxygen level was dropped significantly.”
Doctors put him on a ventilator to help him breathe, but Granato’s condition was worsening.
“They basically had to knock me out and I had no idea this was coming,” he said.
“They just kind of came in the room, a whole group of them, and literally the doctor said to me, ‘listen, you’ve got about 5 minutes and you will not be here anymore. We need to do this to you right now.’ I had no time to think about it. Which is a really good thing. I’m sure they did that intentionally.”
But as the team prepped him to be put under, Granato had the wherewithal to reach out to his brother Tony.
Granato had called Tony when he’d first got to the hospital to warn his family he might not be ready to join the team for their season-opener in Pittsburgh, a kind of precautionary call.
“Tony right away, he’s like a father, ‘OK, I’m going to come,’” Granato said.
No, that wasn’t necessary, Granato told his older brother.
But when he gave his brother an update the following morning after being admitted to the hospital, Tony was steadfast.
“He goes, ‘that’s it. I’m getting on a plane,’” Granato said.
Reaching Tony just before being sedated, “I said, ‘Tone, I don’t know what’s happening but they’re putting me out.’”
Then the anesthetic mask swiftly replaced the phone and the next thing Granato knew he was waking up two days later.
“I’m in a complete fog-like, I’m here. Am I here?” Granato said of the moment he woke up.
He looked around his hospital room and slowly could make out shapes and then faces.
“You’re looking at it and your vision’s kind of hazy. I had a little double vision and I see Tony, I see Cammi, I see my parents, I see my other brother and sister. It was wild. I was like, ‘wow, you guys are all here. They all got to Buffalo by the time I woke up,” Granato said.
“I was pretty happy obviously when I woke up.”
He had a breathing tube down his throat so he couldn’t speak for a day or two, offering a weak thumbs-up signal to his worried family gathered in his hospital room.
“I was very nervous and very concerned,” Granato acknowledged.
If his memory of that final, all-to-brief phone call with Tony was a bit disjointed, the reality of how close he’d come to dying was a very real part of Granato’s return to consciousness.
“I had nightmares of what you’re asking me, that moment,” Granato said. “Because I didn’t have time to think about it beforehand, but it really affected me the next few days. I had these bad dreams.”
Now awake and with his family by his side, Granato had to begin the process of recovery.
The pneumonia had been dealt with but there was still the issue of the bacteria and infection.
In those early days Granato knew he was still not out of the woods.
“They knew they could do tests on the lungs, but they didn’t know where the bacteria had traveled,” Granato said. “Was it near the heart? Was it in the brain? So they were running more tests to make sure I didn’t need antibiotics for longer.”
At one point the doctors warned that the antibiotic regimen could last up to six weeks, but Granato bounced back quickly so he was off antibiotics in 17 days.
A few days earlier Granato had been on the ice working out with some of the top hockey players in the world preparing for the start of the NHL season.
By the time he woke up from his near-death sleep, he hadn’t eaten solid food in days and had dropped 20 pounds being kept whole by an intravenous diet.
He spent 11 days in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
When it came time to start physically moving toward wellness that, too, seemed daunting.
“The first two days I had to use a walker,” Granato said. “I just didn’t have the strength or even the coordination at that point.”
He remembers looking at the chair in his room. It was about three steps from the hospital bed.
“And I remember looking at it going how am I going to get to that chair? It was so bizarre to experience that when you never had that experience at all whatsoever,” Granato said.
There are things you think of in the aftermath of something like this, things that give you pause, make you understand again about the fabric of your life.
Granato’s family, of course, was key. And the medical team, too. But when Granato started going through the messages and texts he’d received since falling ill.
Initially he couldn’t read the messages so Tony helped read and return some of the messages.
“When you start reading texts and what people send you, it’s really, really inspiring,” Granato said.
Their messages, from both current and past players, added even more resolve to get back on the ice.
“You can’t even explain it,” he said.
As he started to put on more weight and get stronger, Granato began to take on some light duties thanks to Krueger. But Granato was cognizant of the fact that he was away from the team and had not been part of the process. In fact, AHL head coach Chris Taylor had been called up to take Granato’s spot on the coaching staff because so little was known about exactly how long it would take Granato to return to active duty.
“It was subtle,” Granato said. “I didn’t want to interfere. I’ve been around the game enough. I’m not there so I don’t want to be an armchair guy.”
The one thing that Granato insisted on and Krueger agreed was that he wouldn’t rush it and that he would only come back when he was 100 percent ready so there wouldn’t be any distractions. Doctors were aware of this and confirmed that Granato was not in any danger of relapsing and that this appeared to be a one-off, random medical issue.
And so it was on Wednesday as the struggling Sabres hit the ice in advance of a trip to Boston that Granato returned to work.
“The whole team, everybody got a real lift today with having Don join us,” Krueger told reporters after the practice. “We will begin with Donnie watching the game from the box with (goalie coach Mike) Bales, then we’ll see after that. I’m sure it’s been really hard. He’s been watching all the games lately. So it’s a fresh perspective now coming to the coaches’ room. His experience will definitely help us in this situation.”
Normally Granato would enter the dressing room through a back door with other assistants prior to meeting with the players before practice, but on this day Krueger insisted that Granato come with him through the main door through the theater room. Then he had Granato wait until he went in and prepared the team for his arrival, and they responded with a nice round of applause and support.
“I had to stop them from clapping,” Granato said.
Krueger made note of Granato’s return at the end of practice on the ice, too, which prompted more applause.
“And I said, ‘enough, no more, I’m back, I’m back,’” Granato said with a laugh.
“It was very, very natural,” Granato said of that moment walking back into KeyBank Center and sliding into his skates and pulling on his gloves.
“It was just a nice comfortable feeling. It wasn’t a whole surge of adrenaline or anything like that.”
He has thought about this periodically over the years, how he grew up the third child in a family of six kids, a family that has always been a kind of a team. And how he’s always gravitated to those kinds of situations, being part of a team.
“You just want to contribute to the group,” he explained.
And so it was more than a bit of a homecoming for Granato this week.
“It just felt nice to be back with team and be a part of the team,” he said. “I knew it would feel like that. It’s just more reassuring that this is where you belong. This is the happy place.”