University of Wisconsin women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson is a relatively diminutive man, with feet that don’t strike anyone as being extraordinarily large.
Yet when Johnson leaves to lead the 2010 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team, he will leave behind a rather gigantic pair of shoes to fill.
Attempting to do so will be assistant coaches Tracey Cornell and Dan Koch, who currently function in virtual obscurity. Next year, though, Cornell and Koch will reprise their roles as co-coaches — something they have done multiple times before. Both in 2001 and 2002, when they took over mid-season for Trina Bourget, and earlier this year, when Johnson was away coaching the U.S. Under-18 National Team, Cornell and Koch have split head coaching responsibilities.
Cornell said having been there, done that will make the transition easier.
“It’s not as nerve-wracking because it’s not the first,” she said. “We had a little bit of a glimpse of what it might look like already this season in January. Mark has prepared us well, and we’re confident in the players we have returning and the players we have coming in.”
While Cornell, a 1997 graduate of Cornell University in addition to a master’s degree in business administration from UW, and Koch, a 1991 UW grad in addition to a master’s in education from St. Mary’s University (Minn.), may not be new to the co-coach arrangement, it won’t be easy to equal the standard set by Johnson. In seven years at the helm of the women’s hockey program, Johnson has compiled a 201-39-22 record.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about it too because it’s a lot of responsibility next year,” said Koch, who joined the program in 2001. “But it’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m very excited about the new chance that Tracey and I will have next in our new responsibilities.”
Although not an easy task, both Cornell and Koch bring to their new job considerable coaching experience and hockey knowledge. Cornell was a four-year letterwinner while at Cornell, and she played professionally in Switzerland for one year. At Cornell, she helped the Big Red to a 1995-96 Ivy League hockey title while serving as assistant captain.
Koch boasts more than two decades of coaching experience. Prior to returning to UW, Koch assisted the Monona Grove boys’ and Madison La Follette girls’ soccer teams from 1986 to 1990, coached the La Crosse Logan/Central High School boys’ hockey team from 1996 to 1999 and served as an assistant women’s hockey coach at St. Mary’s University from 1999 to 2001.
Those experiences, as well as their time under Johnson, have shaped distinct coaching styles for the soon-to-be co-coaches. According to Koch, it is essential that he and Cornell allow those unique styles to come to the forefront.
“Obviously, we have to be ourselves,” he said. “We have our own personalities, and so if we try to be someone else the girls are going to see right through that. As far as our demeanor, I think it’s very similar to his. Mark’s a very calm coach … and we’ll stay that way.”
Complicating matters for the two is uncertainty regarding next season’s roster. Junior forward Meghan Duggan, sophomore forward Hilary Knight and freshman center Brooke Ammerman could all follow Johnson to Vancouver as part of the Olympic team. If selected, they will be allowed to redshirt the season, but would leave Koch and Cornell with some roster holes to fill.
Koch said he and Cornell would use their summer to determine the roster and prepare as much as they can for the upcoming season.
“As far as the X/O’s, we got to really wait until the end of August to see what we have as a group,” Koch said. “Tracey and I will sit down and talk about our roles. Obviously we’ll have a few things on our plate, so as many as those things that we can clear off prior to the season starting we’ll try to take of during the summer. But once the season starts it’s the X/O’s, it’s keeping the girls motivated, getting them ready for practice, so all that will stay the same.”
Even though Koch and Cornell have some obstacles to navigate in taking over as co-coaches, Duggan said their tutelage under Johnson will serve them well.
“Tracey and Dan have been working under Coach for so long, so hopefully they’ll continue some of his great habits when he’s gone and when some of the players are gone,” the Massachusetts native said. “It’ll be an interesting year. … I think it’ll be a little diversity, and a little adversity that the team’s going to have to overcome and kind of just roll with the new coach and see what happens.”
Or, more accurately, new coaches.