By Dave Eminian
Of The Journal Star
HAZELWOOD, Mo. – The Peoria Rivermen remained in Don Granato’s blood after he led them to a Kelly Cup championship in the ECHL in 1999-2000.
Good thing, it turns out. Now the coach says his Peoria championship ring, and a letter from a player on that team, helped save his life this summer.
Granato was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease last winter, cutting short his fifth season as head coach of the St. Louis Blues’ AHL farm club in Worcester. The Blues stood solidly by him the last few months, and in July appointed him associate head coach of the Rivermen – along with Steve Pleau – after transferring their AHL farm club to Peoria for the 2005-06 season.
It’s a job he held until Sunday.
Granato, sitting in the grandstand at St. Louis Mills Ice Zone, watching the Blues training camp, talked about his clean bill of health and a new set of plans the Blues have that will help him make a final step to the NHL.
“Donny is no longer associate Rivermen head coach; instead we have offered him his choice of two jobs,” Blues general manager Larry Pleau said. “We would like him to join the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach for the NHL club. Or he can be a pro scout for the Blues, based in Chicago. Either job is his to have.
“He’s been an inspiration to us all.”
Granato and his wife, Sue, just bought a home in the Chicago area. He will make his decision soon. It sure beats what he had to think about last winter.
“I started deteriorating last January, I could feel my body fighting the cancer, and slowly being overtaken by it, and it was scary,” Granato, 38, said. “I had an odd feeling in my neck, and a dry cough that never went away. On Feb. 23, I found the lumps in my neck.”
Thirteen days later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, now a very treatable, beatable cancer. He endured fatigue and night sweats, waking up every four hours, drenched.
“I thought I was going to die,” Granato said. “I felt bad for the situation I put the organization in. Larry Pleau had to go in the locker room and tell those players their coach was battling cancer. I couldn’t do it, I was too far gone. I’d known for a while I was sick and didn’t tell anyone.”
He started 12 weeks of chemotherapy March 24 at Loyola University Medican Center in Maywood. After a month’s pause, radiation treatments followed at Stanford as part of a clinical trial called the Stanford V (five).
“The doctors say they got it all, killed it,” Granato said. “Chemo is hard. I was sick to my stomach every moment, every day, couldn’t look at food. My weight dropped to 154 pounds. I heard from so many people, though, didn’t realize how many people I knew.”
One of them was former Rivermen right wing Blaine Fitzpatrick, a hero on that Kelly Cup team in 2000. He wrote Granato a letter.
“It was unbelievable,” Granato said. “It had reminders of all the things I used to tell the guys on the team that year, as we went through things together that season.
“I hung it by my desk, near my bed, and looked at it again and again when the days got difficult.”
Then he looked at his Peoria championship ring, and the single word Granato and the team chose to have engraved on its side panel:
“I looked at the ring and there was that word, and it’s what I needed,” Granato said. “It was a huge source of motivation for me.
“You go through a battle with cancer, it changes you for sure. It confirmed for me that I was doing what I love in life, being involved in hockey.
“When you are fighting for your own survival, you discover how much you have to live for.”