When defenceman Carla MacLeod takes to the ice for games against less powerful opponents at the Olympic Winter Games, she only needs to think of her head coach at the University of Wisconsin to be reminded that unlikely upsets can and do happen.
From 20, MacLeod played for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, and Head Coach Mark Johnson. Johnson played almost 600 games in the NHL with Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Hartford, St. Louis and New Jersey.
But the native of Minneapolis and son of legendary coach Bob Johnson will mostly be remembered for his part of one of the greatest upsets in international hockey history, an event immortalized by the movie ‘Miracle On Ice’. Johnson and his Team USA teammates pulled off one of the unlikeliest upsets in Olympic history, beating Russia and eventually capturing gold in Lake Placid at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
“Mark always says there’s a reason you actually play the game,” said MacLeod. “You don’t win on paper. There’s a reason that you play the game … underdogs often win. There are reminders all over the place that the top team doesn’t always come out ahead. You have to play well in order to control that. He’s a firm believer in always playing hard and not taking anything for granted.”
MacLeod speaks very highly of her coach at Wisconsin, whom she continues to keep in touch with to this day. Even if Johnson can’t help but cheer against his former star player and team captain.
“He always jokes and says ‘Good Luck but not too much’ to me. He’s obviously an American and he’s rooting for the Americans as he should. You should cheer for your home country. At the same time, he and I have a tremendous relationship. I’ll call him up in the season here if I’m struggling or something, and go to him for a little bit of comfort. He knows how I work, and so he can help pull me through some situations. I think he’d be delighted if I brought home a gold medal. I don’t think that he’d think it was a bad thing at all.”
Johnson has another former player at the Olympics, wearing the same colours as Johnson did in 1980. Molly Engstrom, a native of Wisconsin, was a teammate of MacLeod with the Badgers. But she hopes to be lining up against her in the gold medal final, as a member of Team USA.
“It’s unique within the sport,” adds MacLeod. “I know that it’s like that in men’s hockey and probably in a lot of other sports. But it’s like anything, when you go out onto the playing field, you’re your team and they’re their team. If I need to hit Molly Engstrom to make a play, I’m going to Molly Engstrom. Mind you, I’ll probably end up on my butt but I’m going to try to hit her. I think that the real bonus is that off the ice, you’ve got a friend who’s gone through sort of the same things that you’ve gone through. I’m supportive of her, and she’s supportive even though we want each other to lose. It’s a great dynamic – that you can be great friends off the ice but enemies on the ice.”
As MacLeod takes to the ice in Turin, you get the sense that she’s got everything in perspective. And she’s the first to credit her coach in Wisconsin, Mark Johnson.
“His hockey accolades speak to his ability. But the part, to me, that impacted me the most, was his humility and how down to earth he is. That’s what I’ve taken away from my three years playing for him at school. That’s what I take going into the Olympics too – It’s just a piece of who I am. It doesn’t define who I am and I think that’s key and it keeps you down to earth. It takes a little pressure off. Winning gold is important but it doesn’t define you.”
“He always just reminds me that it’s a game and that I know how to play the game. That’s all I have to do. I think that’s the key. He’s very grounded and he’s able to put things into perspective. He can help me out when things get a little hectic at times.”
“You hope that’s your mindset going into the big games. Obviously, we’re here for a reason … it’s because we know how to play. So if we can take what we know out on the ice, I think we’re going to be okay.”
MacLeod on always looking forward to Canada vs. USA games
“You want to play each other. Anytime you can play a game where you have the potential to lose, that’s a good game. You don’t play for a 15-0 game, that’s not why you play the sport. You go for the 3-2 or 2-1 win – that’s what we like as players and I think that’s why everytime we play the U.S., it’s really exciting.”