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'The best of the best': Johannson fondly remembered by international hockey community

Rochester native Jim Johannson was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday night at the RiverCentre in St. Paul, nearly five years after he passed away at age 53. Johannson was a two-time Olympian and a USA Hockey executive for nearly 20 years.

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In his role as assistant executive director of hockey operations at USA Hockey, Rochester native Jim Johannson (middle) was in charge of constructing the rosters for many U.S. teams, including multiple U20 World Junior Championship teams and the 2018 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team. His international teams won 64 medals, including 34 golds. Johannson was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday night at the RiverCentre in St. Paul.
Contributed / USA Hockey
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ST. PAUL — Abby Johannson smiled as she looked down at her daughter Ellie, standing next to her on a stage at the RiverCentre late Wednesday night.

Ellie, who turns 7 years old today, held a plaque with a picture of her dad, Jim, on it and smiled back at her mom, then at the hundreds of executives, coaches and former players, a who's-who of hockey in the United States.

"Ellie and I are so honored to be here tonight," Abby Johannson said. "JJ was so proud to be Ellie's dad. It's fitting that we are here, in Minnesota, where JJ's hockey career began, just down the road in Rochester.
"JJ had a terrific sense of humor," Abby continued, referring to her late husband by the nickname he was known by throughout the hockey world, "a wonderful calmness about him and everything he did, he did with ease and that made everyone around him feel comfortable.
"Everyone JJ met was special to him."

With that, Johannson became the newest member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. His plaque — a replica of the one his daughter held — will hang in the Hall, located in the hockey tradition-rich community of Eveleth, Minn.

Indeed, Johannson's biggest gift — and perhaps the biggest reason for his success as a USA Hockey executive — was his ability to make whoever he was talking to feel like the most important person in the room. It wasn't an act, wasn't a put-on. It was genuine.

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He was also always prepared for any situation.

"JJ had a wonderful personality; he was genuine and kind," Abby Johannson said. "He kept blank stationery and thank-you notes in his car, just in case he ever needed them. That was JJ. He was always considerate, always kind."

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Jim Johannson, a 1982 Rochester Mayo High School graduate, was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday night during a ceremony at the RiverCentre in St. Paul. This banner hung in the hallway outside of the ballroom where the ceremony was held.
Jason Feldman / Post Bulletin

Johannson was the assistant executive director of USA Hockey when he passed away unexpectedly on Jan. 21, 2018, at age 53.

He had worked for USA Hockey for nearly two decades by that time, a job he was meant to do, after a stellar playing career that included leading Rochester Mayo to the Minnesota high school state tournament in 1982, winning an NCAA Division I national championship at the University of Wisconsin a year later, then playing professionally for eight seasons and suiting up for the U.S. in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games.

“I was trying to think of words to use to describe JJ and ‘good’ is not ever in that vocabulary," said Brian Burke, an Edina native and current president of hockey operations for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "He was great at everything. To be as good of an administrator as JJ was, it required a greatness, an attention to detail and the span and the breadth of the stuff he had to pay attention to.
“...You knew when his playing career was over that he’d have some sort of position in hockey that would be important, because the game meant too much to him and more importantly, he meant too much to the game.”

Touched countless lives

It would be nearly impossible to count the number of lives Johannson touched throughout his career as a player and an executive.

He grew up in Rochester, the son of Marietta and Ken Johannson. Ken played for the Rochester Mustangs from 1957-68, then worked closely with USA Hockey, including serving as GM of Team USA for the 1979 World Championships.

Marietta Johannson passed away in 2010, and Ken Johannson died on Nov. 27, 2018, nearly 10 months to the day after Jim's death.

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Jim Johannson had two siblings, sister Judy and a brother, John, both of whom were in attendance at Wednesday's induction ceremony for the Class of 2022.

"He'd be so proud," John Johannson said of his dad. "Y'know, Jimmy and my dad were full of gratitude. They appreciated just about everything and everybody. They were doers and incredibly humble."

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A group of former Rochester high school hockey players, all of whom played with or against Jim Johannson, were at the RiverCentre in St. Paul on Wednesday night to see Johannson be posthumously inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Johannson, a two-time Olympian, was a USA Hockey executive for nearly 20 years. Friends who gathered included, front row (left to right): Jeff Whitney, Cray McCally, Todd Lecy, Jeff Korsmo, Randy Lee and Tom Dripps; and back row (left to right): Paul Brandrup, Jeff Nelson, John Korsmo, HT Fish, Tim Mahoney, Jeff Teal, Guy Gosselin, John Johannson, Brad Glynn, Will Fish, Scott Lecy, Jeff Lamb and John McCally.

Among the lives Jim Johannson touched were many of his high school teammates and opponents from Rochester. Nearly two dozen of them were in St. Paul on Wednesday to witness the ceremony, including fellow Mayo High School grads Cray McCally, John McCally, Randy Lee, Tom Dripps, Jeff Whitney, HT Fish, Brad Glynn, Jeff Lamb, John Johannson and Will Fish; John Marshall graduates Todd Lecy, Paul Brandrup, Jeff Nelson, Scott Lecy, Jeff Teal and Guy Gosselin; and Lourdes grads Jeff Korsmo, John Korsmo and Tim Mahoney.

"Jimmy was just a very easy person to connect to," said Whitney, who played one season with Johannson at Mayo in 1979-80. "He was very cerebral about the game and really could see the potential in players. Because he was so personable and approachable — you hear horror stories about some coaches and GMs who are beasts in their jobs — Jimmy connected with every player he came in contact with."

A true leader

To say Jim Johannson left his mark on hockey in the United States would be an understatement.

He truly changed the game in terms of the U.S. competing on an international level.

"When JJ joined USA Hockey in the late 1990s, he immediately got to work building up our national teams and our facilities," said David Poile, the GM of the NHL's Nashville Predators. "He had a vision of what it would take for the U.S. national teams to grow. It started with developing relationships across the hockey community, building a database of players, elevating coaches within the national program, creating expectations of winning.
"He worked tirelessly to cultivate these relationships."

Poile has been an NHL general manager for nearly 40 years. He knows how to evaluate talent and he knows the attributes that a quality executive must possess. He clearly saw all of those attributes in Johannson, whom he called "the heartbeat of USA Hockey for 20 years."

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"When I was asked to serve as GM of Team USA for the 1998 World Championships, I was honored, but I underestimated the task at hand, and how much ground the U.S. needed to make up to catch up to the rest of the hockey world," Poile said. "It was a struggle. Basically, we were begging players in 1998 to play for the United States, let alone even thinking about trying to compete for medals.
"Thanks largely to JJ’s efforts, I can proudly say, nearly 25 years later, that is no longer the case. USA Hockey is second to none worldwide. During his time, Team USA went from a participant in these tournaments to a perennial contender."

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Rochester native and Mayo High School graduate Jim Johannson played in two Olympics for the United States' men's hockey team. He later went on to work for USA Hockey and was in charge of selecting the roster for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.
Contributed / U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

U.S. national teams that Johannson helped assemble won 64 medals in international competition, including 34 golds, 19 silvers and 11 bronze medals. Yet Johannson never sought the spotlight. He was more than content to help clean the locker room, tape players sticks or schedule their flights home.

"No detail was too small for JJ to address — hotels, equipment, transportation — he saw to it that everything was covered so the players could focus on competing," Poile said. "JJ was just a special guy. I consider it a privilege to work for USA Hockey and to work with JJ for all those years."

A standout class

Joining Johannson in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2022 are four former players, all of whom have considerable experience and success playing for Team USA on the international stage.

That group includes Ryan Miller, the winningest U.S.-born goalie in NHL history. Miller, who grew up in Michigan and played college hockey at Michigan State, played in three World Championships and the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Twin sisters Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux are also part of the 2022 class. The North Dakota natives won three Olympic medals, including a gold in 2018, when Monique scored the tying goal in the gold-medal game against Canada and Jocelyne scored the shootout winner. The Lamoureux sisters also won six gold medals at IIHF Women's World Championships.

Rounding out the 2022 class is Steve Cash, the first Paralympic athlete to be inducted in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The Missouri native had his right leg amputated when he was just 3 years old, due to bone cancer. Cash persevered and went on to play 16 seasons with the U.S. Sled Hockey team, winning two Paralympics gold medals, one bronze and five World Championships gold medals.

Johannson was the last of the five to be introduced Wednesday night, perhaps fittingly, being just 70 miles away from his home town.

"He was the best of the best," Poile said. "In short, JJ was all of us. He was a kid who loved the game, a perfect team player. He was a winner. An administrator who left no stone unturned in building his successful teams. He knew the importance of everyone having a role in an organization.
"He was a father, a brother, a son and a guy who loved his family. That’s why my friend, JJ, is a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer."

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Rochester Mayo High School graduate Jim Johannson worked as an executive with USA Hockey for nearly two decades before his death in January of 2018. Johannson was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday at the RiverCentre in St. Paul.
Contributed photo / USA Hockey

What they said about JJ

• NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: “He was a pillar of USA Hockey.”

• Ryan Miller, fellow member of the 2022 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame class: “JJ's passion and joy for the game is infectious and I’m glad he’s being recognized here tonight.”

• Tony Granato, head coach University of Wisconsin men's hockey team: “I was lucky to get to play college hockey with Jimmy. He was always a guy who would do whatever was needed and that’s the No. 1 thing I always respected about him.”

• Brian Burke, Pittsburgh Penguins director of hockey operations: “He touched everybody and reached everyone, and everyone loved him and respected him. I don’t think he’ll ever be forgotten. I think people will be talking many, many years from now, saying ‘you know, we’ve never had someone do as much work and do it as well as JJ.’”

• Pat Kelleher, executive director, USA Hockey: "His awareness of what was needed to continue to grow USA Hockey was really what I think became his legacy, how he grew the game and recognized different areas of how young players in USA Hockey could continue to grow and develop.”

• David Poile, GM, Nashville Predators: "His impact was even greater than the statistics, the medals. During his time, no one was more passionate about USA Hockey than Jim Johannson."

Jason Feldman is the sports editor of the Post Bulletin. In addition to managing the four-person sports staff at the PB, Jason covers high school football, golf and high school and junior hockey. Readers can reach Jason at 507-281-7430 or jfeldman@postbulletin.com.
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