BUFFALO, N.Y. — What makes a great leader? Any of the Buffalo Sabres players will emphatically tell you their head coach Don Granato is one.
"It's not what you don't have, it's what you do have, and that starts with our leadership with Donny," Sabres new veteran goaltender Craig Anderson said after Buffalo's season opener, a 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
"Don Granato, he's a great story," ESPN play-by-play hockey announcer and SportsCenter anchor John Buccigross told 2 On Your Side's Julianne Pelusi before the Sabres hosted the Boston Bruins.
"A good player at Wisconsin, won a national championship. He was on the fast track to the NHL, got cancer, beat cancer, then he went and coached all these great American-born players - Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel - when they were teenagers, so he's an impressive man..."
"They got the perfect guy in Buffalo. This is an absolute top-level NHL head coach."
Granato sat down exclusively with 2 On Your Side the morning after the Sabres beat the back-to-back reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-1.
"We do want the best for them when we go to work everyday... our job is to make the Buffalo Sabres better. And the winning is going to take care of itself," Granato said.
The winning has taken care of itself. To the surprise of fans, and the rest of the National Hockey League, the Sabres started out their first season under Granato as the team's head coach, 4-1-1.
In an organization haunted by a decade of losing, Granato might be the coach to flip the script, with a style fueled by tough love and encouragement.
Not unlike America's beloved fictional character, Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis in the AppleTV series, Ted Lasso.
"I love it," Granato said when asked if he'd seen the show.
"I would be shocked if its not coaches behind the scenes working with the script writers. There's so much there I think that almost coaches would like to do, but it's not allowed. It's not cool to do or not the sexy thing to do, you're showing too much vulnerability. A coach had to play this tough guy leadership role and could never show vulnerability, and I don't believe in that at all."
"It's okay to show vulnerability. You know, I don't know everything, and I don't claim to be the greatest coach there is by any means. And I think the players can compensate for my deficiencies."
Like the fictional soccer coach, Granato isn't afraid to be vulnerable, trust his players and show compassion for them.
"Part of (coaching) is allowing people to be themselves in originality and allowing those different personalities to come to the forefront. I always say, the easiest thing in coaching is to over coach and that can take your team out. I can hurt our team more than I can help our team as a coach, if you don't know the balance, when to push and when not to push," he said.
"I do have a lot of compassion for guys and want to do whatever I can to help these guys. If they're giving me what they can give us as coaches, you know, they're coming to the rink every day prepared and they're passionate about their sport," the former Wisconsin men's hockey player and 1989-1990 National Champion said.
"When I was a player, I had some experiences that I wouldn't wish on other people in the sense of you work so darn hard. I wanted to get into coaching as I wanted to give back. Some opportunities that maybe I never got and felt, you know, maybe I was denied."
The Sabres are currently dealing with former captain Jack Eichel, who did not pass his team physical before the season because of a herniated disk in his neck, demanding a trade.
Granato hasn't spoken much about the situation, leaving updates to the teams's front office, but he said he was recently in contact with the 25-year-ol. Granato has known Eichel for at least a decade, dating back to when Granato coached Eichel at the USA National Hockey Team's Development Program.
"You don't not care for people, and I know whatever happens to these guys in their lives, I just enjoy the relationship I've had with those individuals. I'll continue to have respect for them."
Granato said Eichel told him he's been watching the team. He's also heard from some recently traded players, like Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Eric Staal, have sent him nice texts.
"It's always great to hear from players that you've coached in the past. It's unfortunate sometimes you push players so hard, you demand of them, sometimes they don't realize how much you care about them, and that gets lost."
But Granato's compassion comes from more than battles on the ice. He had to fight for his life, twice.
"When you're questioning your survival, lots of things go through your mind It made me realize how much I wanted to fight through in that situation. I think you realize how much time you wasted in life, or how much you go through life without putting passion in moments and you get too far ahead. You're wasting the moment."
Granato was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2005 but was back behind the bench again the next season.
Then in 2019, a severe case of pneumonia landed him at Buffalo General Hospital and threatened his life again.
"I am glad this (illness) happened in Buffalo because I don't know if I would have survived this if it happened somewhere else," he said.
Now, he's tied to the city he credits for saving his life - and the city which lovingly nicknamed him 'Donny Meatballs' on Twitter - signing on to be the head coach of the Sabres for the next three years in June.
"When I was here in the interim position and there was a lag in the offseason when they were going through coaches interviews, I had no desire to coach anywhere else.
Now he hopes to breathe new life into the hockey team which finished in last place in the NHL last season and hasn't been to the playoffs since 2011.
"I don't sleep at night because I'm so darn excited to get up and go to work and come in. This is the best job there is other than playing. When you love something, it's exciting to get to what's next and to put the work in to get there."