VANCOUVER – Mark Johnson will never be able to escape the Miracle talk, not here, not on the 30th anniversary of the greatest moment in the history of American sport. But his other secret is out of the bag.
Johnson isn’t just a good hockey coach; he’s a great hockey coach, just like Herb Brooks, the man who brought him to prominence three decades ago.
You could argue his job is an easy one in Vancouver, seeing as his club and the Canadians are the Soviet Union’s of the tournament, but that’s a statement that would ignore all of the work he’s done at the University of Wisconsin, turning the Badger program into the UConn of women’s hockey.
And it is no coincidence his club has three of the last four NCAA titles, or that five of his players from Madison will suit up in red, white and blue in Thursday night’s gold medal game.
Johnson understands his hockey club unlike anyone else in his sport. He knows his team has built more chemistry than any other here on the Olympic stage. He doesn’t have to preach work ethic and teamwork because his girls already understand it.
“If you come together and everybody’s playing together for the team, that gives you the best chance to win a championship,” Johnson said. “That was the message we took away from 1980 and that’s the message we pass along to these players.
“I already think they understand it, but you have to go through the process. You have to have tough days. You have to have difficult days. You have to have challenges as you go through this process, to really develop the character and strength that you want as a team.”
Johnson also understands women and the dynamic that goes into coaching 21 of the most talented female athletes in the country; A challenge far different than that of Brooks, or Ron Wilson with a very talented U.S. men’s squad. He cares, he communicates and ultimately he gains the trust of his players and everything seems to flow from there.
“If you can get over the hurdle that we’re wired differently men and women and understand what’s coming through your locker room from an athlete’s standpoint, that can make you a better coach,” Johnson said.
It isn’t just trust but respect that echoes through this group of 21 sisters, Johnson’s adopted daughters over the last six months as Team USA barnstormed across the continent to prepare for their one moment in the spotlight.
“He’s got an amazing heart,” forward Karen Thatcher said. “He’s a great family guy and his passion for the sport just flows through the entire locker room. He’s calm and lighthearted and at the same time very serious when he needs to be.”
Angela Ruggiero, one of the lone remaining players from the 1998 gold medal winning team said its more than that, but the club’s victories at the last two World Championships and difficult losses to Canada on their recent Pre-Olympic tour have helped them mature as a cohesive unit.
“We’ve really been able to grow up over the last three years together,” Ruggiero said. “Winning and losing, our successes and failures, they’ve made us look deep within ourselves and understand that in the end you have to turn and rely on each other.”
This is a team in every sense of the word, from Johnson behind the bench, to Jenny Potter, the team mom in more ways than one, to talented forward Kelli Stack, a standout forward from Boston College who has resurrected her career after scandal nearly drove her to quit three years ago.
“This is just such a great group of girls,” Stack said. “They’ll be there for you when times are good and have your back when things are down”
And then there is the sparkplug of this coveted American sorority, Erika Lawler, who missed a game in this tournament after flying into the boards to chase a loose puck, a play any coach would love. She’s won hearts with her grit; her sense of style and her personality, with her dance moves and by calling talk show host Ellen DeGeneres a ‘babe’ as the club made the media rounds last week.
“It’s never about Mark,” Lawler said. “He wants this to be our moment. He’s always focused on our goals as a team. He wants us to get the most out of this experience and he wants us to enjoy it.”
Lawler grew up playing alongside teammate Meghan Duggan in high school, then alongside Duggan, Hilary Knight, Molly Engstrom and Jessie Vetter under Johnson. Now she has 15 new sisters to call her own.
“This has been the greatest year of my life,” Lawler said. “I have made so many new friends and built so many new relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life and I’m truly blessed for that.”
The girls who started out playing with the boys are now coached by a man who knows exactly what they’re about the face. The rivalry, the patriotic nature of what may lie ahead on Thursday in what could potentially be a sea of red.
They, like him three decades ago want to be the best in the world and it will be up to Johnson to maximize their effort on the biggest of stages in 72 hours.
“It was actually a lot easier being a player than it was being a coach,” Johnson said. “So 30 years-ago when I was playing it was a lot easier on me, but both experiences have been enjoyable to say the least.”