Commentary

Different plan, but perfect fit for Johnson

Updated: January 20, 2010, 8:55 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Mark Johnson
David Stluka/Getty ImagesMark Johnson on coaching women: 'Once you close the door and start playing hockey, you play hockey. I don't care who's underneath the helmet.'

BLAINE, Minn. -- It's a good thing Mark Johnson doesn't want to forget he was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that beat the Russians in the semifinals en route to a gold medal. It's unlikely the world will ever let him.

Rink 6 at the National Sports Center in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Johnson is preparing another generation of Olympians, is named the Herb Brooks Arena after the 1980 team's late, legendary coach. The adjacent gym, where his athletes do their off-ice training, is dominated by a huge reproduction of an iconic image: The euphoric moment after the final buzzer in the U.S.-Russia game. Somewhere in the joyful pileups around the Americans' net is Johnson, then 22 years old, a classy, compact forward who had lived up to his nickname of "Magic" by scoring two goals in the 4-3 win.

Johnson's Olympians walk by those reminders of their coach's past nearly every day. Most of them weren't born when the puck dropped in Lake Placid. They have hips and ponytails and they are all somebody's daughter. One has a husband and two kids. But despite the gender difference, the women's hockey team that will represent the United States in Vancouver, Canada, in February is driven by some of the same pure motivation as the amateurs who pulled off that massive upset almost 30 years ago.

"They want to learn," Johnson said after a practice in late October, with his level, slightly gravelly, unmistakably Midwestern inflection. "They want to be taught. They're passionate about what they do. They'll work hard for you if you show you care about them. They're like sponges. If you're a teacher or a coach, why would you want any other kind of student in front of you? Once you close the door and start playing hockey, you play hockey. I don't care who's underneath the helmet."

Few would have guessed this is where Johnson's professional path would lead him after the glory of 1980 and a productive 11-year career in the National Hockey League. A natural leader by pedigree and temperament, it seemed logical he would follow the grooves sliced into the ice by his father "Badger Bob" Johnson, the longtime coach of the University of Wisconsin and a revered sports patriarch in Madison. Bob Johnson went on to coach in the NHL and took the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup title before he died of brain cancer in 1991.

Mark Johnson does indeed coach at Wisconsin, although he's on leave this year due to his Olympic duties. In a move that shocked many -- including his own wife -- Johnson applied for the Badgers' women's coaching job in 2002, a few months after he was passed over for the men's position. His teams have won three NCAA championships in the past seven seasons. Several past and present Badgers, including much-decorated goalie Jessie Vetter, should play key roles in Vancouver.

"We have a young team and he fits in perfectly with the excitement and energy level he brings," said defenseman Angela Ruggiero, a three-time Olympian who graduated from Harvard. "He's so even-keeled. Having his cool, calm demeanor behind us will go a long way.

"He doesn't talk about the '80 Olympic team or the NHL a lot. Every once in a while, he'll bring a story up. But for the most part, he's focused on right now. How are we going to get there? How is this team going to win a gold medal?"

I never thought my girls would come to the rink and be stick girls like I was a stick boy for my Dad. I never dreamed that. That was the plan. I just didn't know what the plan was.

-- U.S. women's hockey coach Mark Johnson

Women's international hockey admittedly still lacks depth, but the world's four top-shelf teams -- Canada, the United States, Sweden and Finland -- are all capable of throttling each other on a given day. The U.S. team won the inaugural women's Olympic gold medal back in 1998, scrambled to silver in 2002 and unhappily settled for bronze in 2006. Reversing that trajectory in 2010 on Canada's home ice with a team that features only six returning Olympians will be a formidable challenge, although the Americans have beaten Canada for gold in the last two World Championships.

Johnson, 52, has spent his life quietly and respectfully integrating the best of two enduring legacies -- his father's and that of Brooks and the plucky 1980 team -- while at the same time not allowing them to define him. That might seem complex, but then again, Johnson always has been an agile skater.

He is not the perpetually cheery, jovial hockey ambassador his father was, or the more mercurial taskmaster represented by Brooks. Yet Johnson is one of few players who had the chance to learn from both of these longtime archrivals who once manned opposing outposts at the universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Johnson studied hard, trying to understand why men loved playing for Badger Bob, while observing Brooks' insight into each athlete's psyche.

The result is a teacher who takes the game and its lessons far more seriously than he takes himself, which is why he considers coaching women to be as noble a calling as any in the sport.

"I never thought my girls would come to the rink and be stick girls like I was a stick boy for my Dad," Johnson said. "I never dreamed that. That was the plan. I just didn't know what the plan was."


Johnson played for a team that performed a sporting miracle. In the years since, he has formed strong convictions about the difference between miracles and accidents. He believes that methodical preparation and vigilance, rather than mystique and coincidence, put a player in the right place at the right time. That's where Johnson was when he launched a shot past Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak in the last second of the first period of the Olympic semifinal game in 1980, leading to the Russian coach's fateful decision to pull Tretiak and rely on a less-seasoned goaltender.

A selfless work ethic served Johnson well in the NHL. He was a team captain and All-Star with the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) and spent his last five seasons with the New Jersey Devils.

"Mark made the players around him better," said his former Devils teammate Aaron Broten. "He obviously wasn't very big, but he was very skilled and had great balance. He just adapted, and he was a better shooter and had a better vision of the game than most guys."

When Johnson retired in 1992, he didn't assume he was destined to coach, or that doors would swing open for him because of who he was. Instead, he started from scratch, coming home to finish up his undergraduate degree and taking a job as an assistant coach at his old high school, Madison Memorial. Then he coached at a high school in suburban Verona. Then he coached a minor league team. Only then did he return to the Badgers as a men's assistant in 1996. After six years, the head-coaching job opened up. He applied. It went to one of his former Wisconsin teammates, Mike Eaves, instead.

Mark Johnson
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesMark Johnson scored twice in the famous 1980 'Miracle on Ice' game, helping Team USA upset the Russians in the Olympic semifinals.

Professional sports had taught Johnson not to internalize hiring decisions; he was traded like chattel at the height of his NHL career. But it was still difficult to absorb this hometown hipcheck when Johnson believed he had done everything he could to put himself in the right position.

"It was tough," he said. "A friend of mine, good friend of mine, gets it, that wasn't easy either. But the approach is, you can be resentful or else you can wake up the next day and move on, and that's what I chose to do."

Yet the rejection was far from the most difficult moment Johnson has had as a coach.

"When I was coaching the high school team at Verona, we finished up that season and one of my captains died in a car accident," he said. "I had to speak at the funeral. You have to get up in front of four pews of high school students on this side and four pews on that side and talk. That's hard."

It was the second time in four years that Johnson had delivered a eulogy. The first was at a service for his father. Hundreds of faces turned toward him expectantly, and their collective emotion hit Johnson like a rogue wave.

"In his case, it was about celebrating," he said. "You don't realize how many people he impacted. Is my life a success or is my life significant? There's a difference. He had a significant life, the way he impacted people."

Johnson didn't want to buy into anyone else's standard for success. He had his own ideas about what was meaningful, and by that time, he and Leslie had two young daughters in addition to three teenage sons. The same spring he lost out on the Wisconsin men's job, USA Hockey asked Johnson to serve as an assistant coach for the men's World Championships in Sweden. The trip gave him a few weeks to shut his hotel room door and think. Johnson emerged open to another possibility.

When he told Leslie he was considering applying for the women's head coaching position, she tried to talk him out of it. She was sure there would be opportunities elsewhere, and told him she and the kids were ready to move if necessary.

"I just did not think it would fulfill him," Leslie Johnson said. "He was the one convincing me. I had it wrong."

Johnson admitted it was a risk. He worried about his ability to relate to female players. He wondered whether he would ever be able to cross back over to the men's side if he wants to. Eventually, Johnson's desire to run his own program trumped his doubts. "If you're going to walk on water, you've got to get out of the boat,'' he said, smiling self-deprecatingly.

Three months after Johnson took over the women's team, Colorado Avalanche coach and former Badger Tony Granato offered Johnson a job on his staff. Johnson turned him down.

"When I was first on the women's side, people were using that against me in recruiting," Johnson recalled. "'He's only there for a cup of coffee and a bagel; he'll go back to the men.' But during the press conference when I took the job, I talked about commitment, stability, doing things the right way and creating a culture. If I talk about doing these things, I have to follow through. It's no different than being a parent."

Johnson warmed to his new, eminently coachable group of athletes, but there were some adjustments. Used to leading by example, he learned that his women's teams expected more in the way of communication, more explanation of why they were doing a particular drill, more team meetings when conflict arose. He tweaked his style, but he also preached a concept common to all elite sports -- drama is a drain.

"None of it's personal," Johnson said. "That's the biggest hurdle to get over."

Then, as if by design, Johnson once again found himself competing for a job. Olympic coach Ben Smith, who had led the team since its inception, stepped down after the 2006 Olympics. USA Hockey officials decided they wanted to select Smith's successor by means of a three-way coaching derby. Johnson, Harvard coach Katey Stone and Ohio State coach Jackie Barto rotated through the team in major competitions such as the World Championships and the Four Nations Cup. It was stressful for everyone.

[+] EnlargeJessie Vetter and Mark Johnson
Elsa/Getty ImagesGoalie Jessie Vetter, left, won three national titles with Mark Johnson at Wisconsin, and is set to join the coach with Team USA in 2010.

"I'm not a politician," Johnson said, smiling wanly. "I'm not going to do all this networking stuff."

He tried to concentrate on what he believed he could control in his brief stints with the team. Meanwhile, the players, feeling somewhat buffeted by the transition, drew closer together and decided they needed to be more self-reliant no matter who was behind the bench, according to Ruggiero. When Johnson got the official nod last January, she said, "We were thankful because we had been holding the ship, almost, and now we had someone to steer it."

Leslie Johnson said people still lower their voices sympathetically and ask when her husband might get a "real" job again. She's happy to explain that they're wrong, as she once was, and that he loves his work. "I think it was a gift," she said.

Johnson tries to get his players to that right-place-right-time juncture, and then he gets out of the way. He exhibits the same unruffled aura whether the scoreboard displays good news or bad. Everything about him is modulated. (One exception: When Johnson is elated after a win, he leads the team in a goofy cheer that goes, Zigger-zagger, zigger-zagger, oi oi oi.)

"You can see his wheels turning as an athlete and trying to apply that as a coach," Ruggiero said. "He respects us and lets us be elite athletes, and he's not holding our hand through everything."

The players know he's irritated when they see him muttering under his breath, but his emphasis is generally on how to fix things, not what broke down. If he's really discontented between periods, he sometimes will refrain from talking to them at all. His game-day philosophy is that players create their own miracles.


The last Monday of October, while the Olympic women's team ran through skill and power drills with their assistant coaches, Johnson taped an interview in Lake Placid with several of his 1980 teammates and commentator Al Michaels, who called the famous upset over the Russians.

"Goodness gracious," Johnson said. "Thirty years later, we're still talking about it. It's like a book that doesn't have a final chapter. We just keep adding to it. [Michaels] asked me if it ever became a burden, and I said, 'Really, it doesn't.' Someone will come up to me and there'll be excitement in their voice. There'll be enthusiasm about this story about where they were. Wow, that's cool. Sometimes it blows you away. It's a responsibility that you have to take."

While Johnson cherishes the experience, he also attaches little material importance to it. He never wanted to feel he had peaked at 22. As author Wayne Coffey relates in "The Boys of Winter," a book about the 1980 team, Johnson once put a pair of gloves he wore in the Olympics on a garage sale table with a $3 price tag. (A friend insisted they be set aside before they were sold.)

Inspired by disabled athletes, Johnson has taken up competing in Ironman triathlons even though he doesn't much like swimming or running and only tolerates distance cycling. He has completed three of the backbreaking events and says those medals are more prominently displayed in his home than the gold medal from Lake Placid.

"I don't want my tombstone to say 'Mark Johnson, Olympic gold medalist, 1980,'" Johnson said. "Maybe way down at the bottom, but not at the top." His preferred epitaph: Good father, husband, son. Good coach will figure in there somewhere.

The thousands of miles Johnson has skated have given him an open stance about what constitutes a significant life. And that makes him an excellent fit for the women he coaches, very few of whom will ever make a living on the ice.

"The biggest thing I can do, whether it's with my team or my family, is, one, showing up, being there," Johnson said. "Secondly, to get them to understand that what we're doing is about caring for the person. It's no different than it was in '80 with Herb. At some point, we had to trust him."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.