The top scorer on the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and the son of a hockey legend, Mark Johnson returns to the Games as the goal-minded, let's-have-fun coach of the U.S. women
When Mark Johnson steps behind the bench for the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team in Vancouver starting this weekend, he will have been well-groomed for the challenge. Born to it, you might say.
Two men are generally acknowledged to be the greatest U.S. hockey coaches ever: One is Herb Brooks, who coached Johnson during the unforgettable 1980 Olympic year. Brooks was a master motivator—mercurial, unpredictable, capable of mind games and savage verbal assaults. Brooks called Johnson, who at 5'9" and 155 pounds was the U.S.'s leading scorer at the Lake Placid Games, the player who made the team go.
The other great U.S. coach is Badger Bob Johnson: Mark's dad. Mark played for him for three years at the University of Wisconsin, the six-time NCAA-title-winning program that Bob built virtually from scratch. Nearly two decades after Bob's death from brain cancer, Mark still has and consults his father's journals, which describe specific practices—drills, power plays, forechecking schemes—from those Wisconsin years.
February 15, 2010
Mark has also inherited Badger Bob's infectious love for the game. Bob's favorite expression, "It's a great day for hockey!" could serve for Mark as he builds a legacy in the women's game that could rival the success his father and Brooks enjoyed on the men's side. In seven years as women's coach at Wisconsin, the 52-year-old Johnson has gone 210-39-22, winning three NCAA titles in the last four seasons. Four months after being named Olympic coach in January 2009, he guided the U.S. women's national team to the second of its two straight world titles.
Still, Johnson knows sportswriters will not be dwelling on those achievements in Vancouver; he knows what clips will be interspersed during telecasts of the Games. "I'll answer questions about 1980, but it doesn't define me," he says. "It was just part of my life. A fun part."
That 1980 team was an implausible underdog—even the players couldn't believe they beat the Soviets. The 2010 U.S. women's team? Anything less than gold will be a disappointment. "We're not in the miracle business," says USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. "We're in the expectation business."
With expectations comes pressure, and there is also the formidable obstacle of host Canada, which has won the last two Olympic gold medals and will be playing in front of a rabid crowd. Canada has beaten the U.S. seven times in 10 meetings during the teams' pre-Olympic tours, but Johnson seems undaunted—"He's so even-keeled," says defenseman Angela Ruggiero, one of two U.S. players who were alive when Johnson competed in Lake Placid—and, as always, relentlessly positive.
"I learned from my dad, you'd better have a little bit of fun every day," says Johnson, whose practices are fast-paced, offense-oriented and competitive. "Herb Brooks isn't the model. If it's not fun, you're going to lose them. What's the fun part of the game? Goals."
The biggest differences between men's and women's hockey are hitting—there's no checking in the women's game—and shooting. Women don't shoot as well as men, and Johnson, who never weighed more than 170 pounds but scored more than 500 points in his 11-year NHL career, believes that's because coaches don't work with them enough on their hands. They need to be relaxed and quick, yet strong.
"Early on, a lot of the players asked me, 'Are practices always this fun? Is he going to change?'" says Olympic goalie Jessie Vetter, who played four years for Johnson at Wisconsin. "I can remember only one practice he made us skate for a while after a loss."
Even without punishing tactics, Johnson, who has completed three Ironman competitions, most recently in September, has his Olympic players in terrific shape—a perceived shortcoming of the 2006 women's team, which finished a disappointing third in Turin. He led them up the brutal Manitou Incline of Pikes Peak last summer as a team-bonding and conditioning exercise. "It's tough to complain when you see him doing it and then competing in the Ironman," says forward Erika Lawler, 22, of Fitchburg, Mass., who played on all three of Wisconsin's NCAA championship teams.
Johnson needed 16 hours, 28 minutes to complete the most recent Ironman Wisconsin, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon. Thirty-two minutes longer and his time would have been so slow that he wouldn't have been recognized as a finisher. The temperature was in the mid-80s, and Johnson was vomiting for several hours over the last 40 miles on the bike. But what he shared with his team were not his personal trials but the inspiration he got from other competitors, some of whom had disabilities and others of whom had lost as much as 150 pounds while training. "[He talks] about people who have pushed themselves to the next level," says Olympian Caitlin Cahow, 24, a defenseman from Branford, Conn.
Johnson's self-effacing, empathetic style resonates with his players. A husband and father of five hockey players (his oldest son, Doug, 25, coaches his oldest daughter, Mikayla, 15, on her club team; Chris, 24, is senior captain at Augsburg College; Patrick, 20, is a junior forward at Wisconsin; and Megan, 13, has been a star on the Wisconsin Ice Spirits youth team), Johnson has life, and hockey, in perspective.
"They like the way he listens," says Michele Amidon, the director of hockey operations at USA Hockey. "It's not his way or the highway. The chemistry on this team is something we haven't seen in a while, and with women, if you don't have chemistry, you won't win. That's not necessarily true for men."
Johnson has discovered several differences between coaching men and women. "I remember telling my first team, 'There's no crying in hockey,'" he says. "That lasted about three days. They cry if they're happy, they cry if they're sad. Women's hockey is more emotional. Women are also big on what I call the 'why' element. You need to tell them why you're doing a certain drill before they really buy into it. Men? We just do it."
He never set out to coach women. After being an assistant to Jeff Sauer at Wisconsin for six years, he was hoping to take over the men's program when Sauer stepped down in 2002. Instead he was passed over for his former Badgers teammate Mike Eaves. Out of work, Johnson applied when the Wisconsin women's job opened up.
In his introductory press conference Johnson spoke about giving stability to a fledgling program that had gone through three coaches in the previous four years. Seven months later he got a call from Tony Granato, then the new coach of the Colorado Avalanche, feeling him out about an assistant's job. It would have meant NHL money, NHL prestige, a possible step toward an NHL head-coaching job. Johnson thought about it for a few days, then turned Granato down.
"If I left then, what good was my word?" Johnson asks. "I'd just talked about stability, about building a winning program from the ground up. And it's happened. It's all come true. Now it's turned into an opportunity [for me] to get back to the Olympics. So it was worth it."
"My biggest regret," he adds, "is my dad never got to see women's hockey. He never got to work with young ladies. He'd have had a blast with it, and they'd have loved being around him." As they love being around his son.
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"Herb Brooks is not the model," Johnson says of his intense 1980 coach.