Johnson hopes his women's hockey team will make its own memories
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The gold medal Mark Johnson won as the leading scorer on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team is sitting somewhere in the computer room of his home in Madison, Wis. "I couldn't tell you exactly where," he said, smiling.
He didn't bring it with him to Vancouver for a second Olympic experience as coach of the U.S. women's hockey team, an opportunity that's as exhilarating for him as it was unexpected.
He doesn't need to remind his players about the key role he played among the U.S. college kids who stunned the powerful Soviets and beat Finland to become Olympic champions and the patron saints of underdogs everywhere.
"They all know I have a gold medal," he said, "but their expectations and their goal is to win their own gold medal and create their special memory."
The U.S women will begin that process Sunday when they face China at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena. The U.S. has won the last two world championships but has slipped a step on the Olympic medal stand since winning gold at the inaugural women's tournament in 1998.
It was after they finished third at Turin in 2006 that the program was shaken up and the team entrusted to Johnson, coach of the University of Wisconsin's women's team and a remarkable synthesis of the coach he played for in Lake Placid and the coach who fathered him.
From Herb Brooks, the taskmaster 1980 boss, Johnson learned the importance of uniting a team. From his father, "Badger" Bob Johnson, who coached at Wisconsin and in the NHL and was famous for his insistence that "It's a great day for hockey," Mark learned the value of keeping humor and humanity in everything he does.
"I like to think I'm my own person. Playing for Herb and living with my dad, you're going to take a lot of positive things away from both of those experiences," he said.
"The big thing is I played a long time. I played in a lot of different areas, whether it was the captain of a team, the fourth line of a team, playing for a championship, not making the playoffs. The one thing I think I utilize quite a bit is putting myself in my players' shoes. So where we're at, what type of experience we're going through, I can reflect back on similar situations and say, hey, what's the best thing to do today at practice? Is it to push them? Is it to challenge them? Is it to back off? Is it to make it fun? Is it to enjoy it? That's what you try to do, and hopefully at the end of the day I've become my own coach."
Now 52 and the father of five kids ranging from 13 to 25, Johnson is utterly without pretense and looks people directly in the eye when he speaks. If Brooks united the 1980 team against him, Johnson inspires his players to live up to his expectations and those they build for themselves.
"I am so fortunate and so honored to be able to play for a team that he coaches," forward Karen Thatcher of Blaine, Wash., said. "The biggest thing that I've noticed with him is his passion for the game and how much he loves the game. My heart lies in hockey and so does his."
A few weeks ago, while practicing in Boston, they got a surprise visit from Mike Eruzione, captain of the Lake Placid team. He told them about Johnson scoring the tying goal against the Soviets. What they really wanted was the goods on their coach.
"He told us, 'I wish I could tell you guys some stories about Mark, but he's a clean guy,' " defenseman Molly Engstrom said.
It was one of the rare times Johnson voluntarily invoked 1980.
"That was my time. That was my place and certainly amazes me as we still talk about it, 30 years ago. This is about their journey. This is about their opportunity," he said. "The biggest change is the expectations. The expectations are very high for this group and how can you handle it, how can you deal with it?"
He's dealing with it calmly, firmly, though he's finding this Olympic journey to be quite different from his first.
"Coaching is a lot more challenging than being a player, so the experience this time around compared to what I went through 30 years ago is much different and certainly a bigger responsibility on my part," he said.
"The small things, the little things, when we started in August and up until today, are very similar. You bring together a group of players. You hope they're committed. You hope that over the course of six months that they enjoy the experience getting here."
No matter what happens, he has been a positive influence on his players. Not every coach can say that.
"He has lots of knowledge and he shares that with us as well. He's a great teacher," said defenseman Lisa Chesson of Plainfield, Ill. "I just enjoy every practice with him because he makes it fun and always has something positive to say."
Truly making every day a great day for U.S. women's hockey.