Mark Johnson to coach U.S. Women's Olympic hockey team
He wasn't appointed because he played on the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. men's team at Lake Placid, N.Y., where he scored twice in the "Miracle on Ice" team's upset of the heavily favored Russians -- and assisted on the winner and scored the insurance goal in the gold-medal game against Finland.
He wasn't appointed because he's the son of "Badger" Bob Johnson, the ever-optimistic coach who enjoyed the rare success of winning three NCAA titles at the University of Wisconsin and a Stanley Cup championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins before he died of brain cancer in November 1991.
(USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, is located on Bob Johnson Drive in Colorado Springs, Colo., one of many tributes to the man whose favorite saying, "It's a great day for hockey," is affectionately remembered by all who knew him).
Johnson, 51, got the Olympic job because of who he is and what he has done, not who he knew, and that can only be good for those who play for him and get to know him as he returns to the national stage.
Johnson, who played 11 seasons in the NHL, has been able to take the best of what he learned under taskmaster Herb Brooks with the 1980 team, blend it with his father's knowledge and love
for the game and bring to it his own ability to communicate, teach and create challenges that stimulate his players.
Johnson was an assistant coach of Wisconsin's men's team before taking over the women's team and bringing the stability and solidity that would lead to two NCAA titles. He has been a part of the coaching staff of U.S. men's and women's teams for years.
He is a solid, grounded human being who has represented his sport and his country exceedingly well every time he has been asked, including a return to the ice at age 41 to help Team USA qualify for the main pool at the world hockey championships.
During a news conference today in Madison, Wis., Johnson said he hoped to bring lessons he learned from his father and other coaches while he creates his own niche with the U.S. women's team. The previous Olympic coach, Ben Smith, resigned after the U.S. women's team -- which had too light a pre-Olympic schedule and didn't train enough together -- finished third in Turin, Italy.
The lessons Johnson learned from his father -- who cut him from the 1976 Olympic team -- will be his primary resource.
"What I saw first-hand was that ability to create a culture, where you give your players the best opportunity, your teams the best opportunity to be successful, and how you create that culture to me is so vital," he said. "His enthusiasm was always there, his love for going to the rink to try and work with players and improve them on and off the ice was always there.
"I wish he was still alive today for two reasons. One, he would certainly be smiling if he was here today with this opportunity that I've been presented. I think most importantly, the second part of that would be just the growth and what we've seen in women's hockey since the mid- and late '90s. He just loved when people got involved in hockey as players, as coaches. He never got an opportunity, really, to witness first-hand how good these women hockey players are."
Among the ranks of female players are Johnson's own daughters, Mikayla, 14, and Megan, 12, the youngest of his five kids.
"I get sad every once in a while that they didn't get a chance to know him or get a chance to maybe play under him in a hockey school environment and see not only the zest he had for the sport but for life in general," Johnson said. "When you're around that as long as I was, you're going to take a lot of that into your coaching philosophy."
From Brooks, who died in 2003, Johnson said he had gained an appreciation for preparation and persuasion.
"He really took us out of our comfort zone and trained us like no other coach had trained us," Johnson said. "At first, there was resistance. Nobody could understand it. If you've seen the movie 'Miracle,' it actually made him out to be a pretty nice guy.
"Our toughest practice probably of the season as a group was the day after we beat the Russians. We came to the rink on Saturday, and we were strutting. We thought we were a pretty good group and feeling our oats. We thought we had the gold medal in the back of our pockets. But he caught our attention right when we stepped on the ice and we had one of our most challenging practices
"He knew the opportunity that was going to be presented the next day, and he didn't want us to screw it up. As he mentioned, you screw that last game up against Finland, you'll take it to your graves."
Brooks used saltier language, but the point is well-taken: prepare for the opportunity, and then make the most of it. Johnson has done that in this case, and he will do it with the women's Olympic team.
Canada, as the defending Olympic champion and host nation, will have the advantage of huge crowd support in Vancouver. But the U.S. team now has a residency program that will keep players together to train in Blaine, Minn., outside Minneapolis. The team will also play a tour and compete in several tournaments before the Olympics.
"We're going to push ourselves," Johnson said. "We're going to have fun, and we're going to become a very good hockey team by the time we get to Vancouver."
And that should provide many more great days for hockey.
-- Helene Elliott
Photo: Mark Johnson in September 2006. Credit: Michelle Stocker / The Capital Times / Associated Press