Johnson returns to Olympics as U.S. women’s hockey coach
Thirty years after the “Miracle on Ice,” Mark Johnson returns to the Winter Olympics for another shot at gold.
He was a 22-year-old kid in 1980 when he scored two goals against the mighty Soviet Union team in one of hockey’s greatest upsets and led the U.S. with 11 points in its unexpected run to gold in Lake Placid, N.Y.
This time around, he’s coaching the U.S. women’s team, which is expected to battle Canada for the gold medal in Vancouver.
Johnson, 52, took a leave from his job as the University of Wisconsin women’s coach and has spent the last six months working with the national team at its training center in Blaine, Minn.
The difference between Johnson’s experience in 1980 and his task this month is enormous.
There were no expectations for the ’80 team, a collection of wide-eyed college kids coached by Herb Brooks, which is why the “Miracle” was, well, a miracle.
The women’s hockey tournament in Vancouver is another story.
The U.S. is at worst the second-best team in the world and the pressure is off the charts to get back to the top of the podium for the first time since 1998.
And it’s a challenge Johnson relishes.
“I’m lucky, really lucky, to get a chance to do this,” he said. “I’ve got a great group of players. You just hope you’re doing the right things, but you won’t know until it’s over. Welcome to coaching.
“One thing I’ve found is that it’s certainly harder to be a coach than it is to be a player. You’re making so many difficult decisions. You’re cutting players late in the process and affecting families. You’re playing all these exhibition games, which don’t mean squat. And then you’ve got this two-week period to play your best hockey.”
The 21-player Olympic roster was finalized Dec. 17 and includes seven players Johnson recruited and coached at Wisconsin. Two of them, forwards Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan, have eligibility remaining.
“The players from Wisconsin earned the right to be here,” Johnson said. “I happened to be their coach, but they’ve committed themselves and they’ve worked hard. What it comes down to is, who are our best players? Who’s going to work hard and give us the best opportunity to bring home the gold medal?”
The U.S. opens Olympic play on Sunday against China. Barring an upset in pool play or the semifinals, the Americans would face arch-rival Canada for the gold medal on Feb. 25.
If the U.S. women don’t come back with the gold, it won’t be because they got out-coached. Johnson has a spectacular record at Wisconsin, 210-19-22 (.880) in six seasons and three NCAA titles (2006, 2007 and 2009) in a four-year span. He is a three-time national coach of the year.
“Our most important game right now is our game against China,” he said. “Everybody can talk about Canada, but if you talk to Finland and Sweden, they’re not talking about U.S. vs. Canada. They’re working on ways to beat us.”
Given the intense nature of the U.S.-Canada rivalry, however, Johnson will have to use every motivational trick in his bag to keep his players focused on lesser opponents early in the tournament.
The U.S. beat Canada, 3-1, for the gold medal in 1998. Canada returned the favor in 2002 with a 3-2 victory in the final.
Johnson isn’t concerned that the moment will be too big for his players.
“They’re not preparing to fail,” he said. “They’re preparing to be successful.”