Several years ago there was this hockey game where a bunch of young Americas played against a group of seemingly invincible Russians. Those kids representing the United States won and went down in history as one of the best teams to play the game. Their stunning win could only be described as a miracle.
Just ask Wisconsin women’s hockey head coach Mark Johnson. He was there.
Johnson may be a legend in the hockey world along with the rest of the 1980 Olympic team, but his focus is on his team now as a coach.
There’s no denying Johnson had an impressive career as a player. Johnson played college hockey at Wisconsin and in 1980 Johnson made the cut to compete in the Olympics. He was the lead-scorer in the Olympics helping Team USA defeat that star-studded Soviet team and later upend Finland to take home gold.
But Johnson doesn’t concern himself with his past success. Instead he’s bringing his knowledge to the rink, helping the Badgers win three national championships and continuing to work for more
Senior Forward Megan Duggan has been with Johnson since her freshman year, also traveling to the Olympics with him last year. While starting to skate with him at first may have been intimidating, now she cannot imagine her life without him.
“Coming in as a freshman you want to impress your coach and to have a coach like him who is so well respected, so knowledgeable, and such a huge hockey person,” Duggan said. “Obviously you know that he’s expecting great things. Actually when I first met him I was playing for a team when I was 16 — it was a development camp team and I was in shock. It’s interesting now, you transition five or six years later and he’s just a coach we see everyday.”
As a player Johnson has been put through every circumstance possible. With all of his experiences in tow, Johnson feels he can approach situations as a coach with a player’s mindset.
He has certainly had his fair share of highs and lows.
“I think probably one of the things that helps me out from a coaching standpoint, as a player I was in a lot of different situations,” Johnson said. “Some teams I played with I was a go-to player — played power play, killed penalties. When I first got in the National Hockey League I was a fourth-liner, sat out a few games. If I’m having a problem or I run up against the wall, I just put my feet into what they’re going through.”
Taking a year off from coaching the Badgers, Johnson coached the women’s Team USA all the way to the gold medal game against Team Canada in the Olympics.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, and fittingly it was Johnson’s return to the Olympics. But in spite of this fact, Johnson was focused on leading his team and wanted everyone to know that.
“To be honest, last year when I was part of the Olympic team, coach I think made it a huge point to make sure that the 2010 Olympic games were about us and not about him,” Duggan said. “That’s what’s so great about him. He’s a legend in the hockey world and anyone who knows anything about hockey knows him. I mean he’s so modest. You’d never know the experiences he’s had and the things that he has been through.”
Even though the focus was on them, his stories from his personal experiences still helped the squad on their trip to the Olympics.
“There was a bunch of stories along the way and on our tour,” junior forward Hilary Knight — who also skated on the Olympic team — said of his stories. “We got to meet up with a lot of his old teammates so that was cool. Each destination we were in, he knew somebody. He shares all sorts of stories. I think it calmed a lot of people knowing he’s been there before.”
Team USA has not won a gold medal on the men’s side since that historic run in 1980. Last year was Team USA’s closest chance to get back to the top of the podium, but the team fell in the final to Canada. The men’s team surprised many in the hockey community with their silver medal-effort, and USA hockey appears to be on the upswing.
Johnson credits the USA hockey family for the more recent success they’ve had since the 1980 Olympics.
“It’s a tribute to all the people that work under the USA hockey umbrella,” Johnson said. “The time, the commitment that a lot of coaches have made, certainly the players have made to better themselves, the resources that USA hockey has put into the different programs have given the players the opportunity to — whether it’s Division I college or the NHL — for a lot of them, getting that chance to play for the Olympic team is pretty special. You’re representing your country and I think that’s probably the biggest thrill I think any player can get.”
Although Johnson’s recent success as a Coach is his main focus now, it only adds to his importance in the hockey world.
In all his experiences throughout his career as a player he admits nothing could get better than the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
“Obviously what happened in Lake Placid, you’re not going to beat that type of experience because that was a once in a lifetime scenario and I happened to be one of the 20 players that went through it,” Johnson said. “I played a long time in the NHL and had a lot of things happen and a lot of wonderful moments, certainly a lot of experiences that once you retire you take away from the game. Coaching is the same thing. I’ve had some great experiences on the men’s side, some great experiences on the women’s side. Hockey has been very, very good to me.”