After the first goal Los Angeles Kings defenseman Rob Blake smiled and said, "O.K., Tony, one's enough." After the second goal Blake told him, "C'mon, Tony, two's plenty." After the third goal Blake told left wing Tony Granato of the San Jose Sharks, a former teammate and his best friend in hockey, "O.K., Tony, now I'm going to have to hit you."
Granato laughed, and with good reason. On Feb. 14, 1996, eight months before that hat trick in the Sharks' second game of the 1996-97 season, Granato underwent a four-hour operation to remove an intracranial hematoma, an abnormal cluster of blood vessels in the left temporal lobe of his brain—surgery that Granato figured would end his playing career.
Neurosurgeon Neil Martin of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., thinks Granato's condition might have been present since birth, but it probably worsened last Jan. 25 when Granato slid headfirst into the boards after colliding with the Hartford Whalers' Jeff Brown. Granato played one more game for the Kings before the pounding in his head and the memory loss became more than he could bear.
On the day of the operation Granato, 32, had one thought: I hope I wake up. When he did, the debilitating headaches were gone. His mind was clear. After extensive tests in Los Angeles and a visit to the Mayo Clinic last August, Granato was told by doctors that he could resume his career, that he would be at no more risk of receiving a head injury than anyone else in the NHL. In fact, Granato is now at less risk than many players. After signing as a free agent with San Jose in August, Granato switched to a tight-fitting CCM helmet with a five-eighths-of-an-inch-thick foam liner that has an additional eighth-inch piece of dense foam between the shell and the lining. At the time that he hit his head on the boards he was wearing a helmet with quarter-inch padding, which is still a popular model in the NHL. "I didn't realize the equipment I was wearing was so inadequate," Granato says. "But it was comfortable, and I liked that. In hindsight I wonder how I could have overlooked [the safety factor]. Now, seeing guys practice without helmets, that's scary."
While Granato, who had 11 goals at week's end, doesn't shy away from contact, he isn't the chippy hellion he once was. "I'm smarter," he says. "I pick my spots."