Mark Johnson truly made his mark in hockey history in Olympic competition. Today, he coaches the University of Wisconsin’s women’s team, and he’s hoping to revive his golden touch as the head coach of Team USA at the 2007 IIHF World Women’s Championship.
His greatest achievement is well-known to fans around the world. A talented forward at age 22, Johnson was on the ‘Miracle on Ice’ team that captured the 1980 Olympic gold medal. The underdog Americans upset the Soviet Union 4-3 in the key game of the tournament, and Johnson scored two goals.
That wasn’t his only highlight whilst sporting the Stars and Stripes. He participated in eight World Championships plus other international tournaments.
He also had a successful NHL career, starting off in 1979 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In addition, he played for Minnesota, Hartford, and St. Louis, and ended up with the New Jersey Devils for five years.
Johnson got involved in hockey at a young age, idolizing players from his native Wisconsin where he grew up. Some of his favourite NHL heroes were Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe.
Mark Johnson played under the direction of his father, “Badger” Bob Johnson, who coached the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team. Coming from a sports family, Johnson found it natural to pursue a career on the ice.
“Well when your dad’s coach, and you want to hang out with your dad, you usually had to go to the rink,” reflected the 49-year-old Johnson. “It’s a great sport for young kids to get involved in. I was fortunate to have a dad that was in the business.”
Johnson’s advice to young players today: “Make sure you enjoy the sport and have fun because that’s why it’s called ‘a hockey game.’ I think sometimes we get too serious. And if you want to become better, become a well-rounded athlete. Don’t just focus on one particular sport.”
He retired as a player in 1992 with 669 NHL games under his belt, having collected 203 goals and 305 assists. Once his career ended, it was time for Johnson to pass along what he had learned in his career and become a coach.
“I think obviously some of the things that happened back in 1980 you take with you, you put in the back pocket,” remarked Johnson.
Prior to working on the women’s side of hockey, Johnson served as an assistant coach with the UW Badgers men’s team from 19. He also assisted with the US Olympics Men’s Ice Hockey Orientation Camp in 2001 and with the US Men’s National Team in 2002. His involvement with female hockey at the University of Wisconsin began in 2002.
So why did he become a women’s hockey coach?
“I heard nothing but positive comments,” said Johnson. “I wanted to be a head coach again, and this gave me an opportunity to not only head coach but also to run my own program and make my own decisions. That was five years ago and it’s been very rewarding, very enjoyable. I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
Johnson noted that one of the most challenging parts of coaching any team is getting the players to play and think as a team, not individuals. He said they need to understand what it means to be a team player, accept their roles, and sacrifice individual egos.
“If they’re going to want to win a championship, they have to sacrifice those things and do what’s for the best of the team,” said Johnson. “If you get a group that’s willing to do it, then you have a chance to make a run at things.”
Referencing what he was able to pull off with a bunch of American college kids versus the mighty Russians in 1980, Johnson explained his outlook on some of the underdog teams in the tournament: “Even if you’re playing someone on paper that looks a lot better than you, or superior, you still have to drop the puck and play the game. If you’re willing to do some of the things the team did back in 1980, who knows what’s going to happen? One thing we can’t do is predict the future.”
Johnson said there’ll be upsets in the future, especially because hockey can allow that to happen. Even if you have a weaker team, the result can change if you get great goaltending.
But still, there are some definite favourites in Winnipeg. The USA and Canada meet for the first time at this tournament on April 7, and odds are excellent that they’ll meet in the finals too. Johnson looks forward to it: “Both of our countries are elite athletes at hockey. For the people that come watch the game, they’ll see two very competitive, very skilled and passionate teams on the ice competing for victory.”
Mark Johnson has had a front-row seat to watch women’s hockey develop over the last five years, and he hopes it will get even bigger as more girls take up the sport: “I think once you get them out on the ice, with the speed and the excitement of playing hockey, you grab them, and you got ‘em.”
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