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Lester Patrick Award a family affair for the Johnsons

by Corey Masisak /
Hockey has always been the family business for Mark Johnson, and countless families around the United States have benefitted from that.

Johnson will be honored for his contributions to the sport in the U.S. Wednesday when he receives the Lester Patrick Award at Saint Paul RiverCentre in St. Paul, Minn. His father, legendary coach Bob Johnson, received the award in 1988.

"I was a little stunned at first and certainly humbled with being recognized. It is a real honor and it certainly puts a smile on your face in regards to what has been going on in my life for the last 30 or 40 years," Johnson said. "When [my father] received the award and the recognition for what he did, whether it was Wisconsin or USA hockey or what he did in Pittsburgh and Calgary in his career, it was obviously not only a special evening for him but certainly for our family. With my ability to go in and now be recognized, it makes the honor even that much more special.

"It is a great award obviously and I'm certainly looking forward to Wednesday night."


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The Lester Patrick Award has been given to people for their contributions to hockey in the United States since the New York Rangers donated a trophy to honor Patrick in 1966. Other recipients this year are Jeff Sauer, the former Wisconsin and Colorado College coach, Bob Pulford, a Chicago Blackhawks executive and former NHL player, and Tony Rossi, an IIHF Council Member.

Johnson's impact on the sport in this country in one important game 31 years ago might be enough to warrant such an honor, but his reach goes far beyond the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. Olympic team. He has become one of the premiere coaches in women's hockey and helped elevate the profile of the women's game both in his work for the University of Wisconsin and the U.S. Women's national team.

He became a national hero on that fateful night in Lake Placid, N.Y., but Johnson put on the United States sweater more than 80 times during a career that included three seasons playing for his dad at Wisconsin and 11 seasons in the NHL.

Several of those games playing for the national team were also with his father behind the bench.

"The fun part of playing for him was he always made coming to the rink fun and an enjoyable experience," Johnson said. "He certainly was as competitive as anybody and wanted to win hockey games, but I think with his teaching ability and upbeat, positive attitude I think a lot of players enjoyed playing that type of atmosphere he was able to create."

Johnson followed in his father's footsteps and became a coach. He first spent time as an assistant to Sauer for the men's team at Wisconsin. He took control of the women's program in 2002, and the Badgers have been a powerhouse with Johnson at the helm.

He has won the national title four times in the past six seasons and Wisconsin was also the national runner-up once in that span. The lone time in the past six years that the Badgers didn't play for the national championship Johnson wasn't there -- he took the year off to coach the national team in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"You try to create a culture that as a head coach you have the opportunity to create because you're running your own program," Johnson said. "Whether it is at Wisconsin, with the Olympic team or with the national team, it is that philosophy that what atmosphere you want to create after playing for a long time at a high level with many different coaches. You can use that experience to help create your philosophy and remember what it was like in certain situations when you were a player -- how you want to be treated, how you want to be held accountable.

"When you have players understand that and buy into that, you have a chance for something special. As coaches we look at the day-to-day procedure to create good habits and when the season is over you can reflect on what went well and what didn't. We've been fortunate here with kids who are willing to play as a team and we've been extremely fortunate to help these kids experience championships a few times, and that makes you feel good as a head coach. It is a process and a journey, and just as players do we learn from some of the mistakes we make as a coaching staff and how we can get better."

Women's hockey has seen a dramatic rise in participation, both in this country and around the world. Canada and the United States remain the top national programs, but other countries have started to close what was once a tremendous gap.

Johnson credits volunteers at the youth level for helping the women's game during his time as one of the faces of the sport.

"We see the numbers, especially in the States, women's hockey in the last six or eight years has grown every year," Johnson said. "More young girls are getting a chance to go to the rink and play this great game. As more kids get involved, the base gets bigger and certainly as they start coming up through the college levels our product has gotten much better the last five or six years. That is attributed to more youth players and the volunteers around the country who get involved and are giving opportunities to these young ladies as well as good coaching and good competition. The end result as they move up the food chain is we're getting better players. The game has gotten so much better that people who come and watch us play are certainly impressed by the level of play and the quality of these athletes."

Added Sauer: "I consulted with the women and I've enjoyed watching the job Mark has done with them, possibly more than the men. I watched them play a game against Minnesota last week and it was just great, great hockey."

Most of Johnson's family will be in St. Paul for the event to honor Mark, but his son might not be able to make it -- just as he was predisposed when his father was honored. Playing duties kept Mark away, just as it might be the case for his son, Patrick, who is in his first professional season with Wheeling in the ECHL.

Besides his family there will be a guy in attendance who has known Johnson for his entire life. Sauer was an assistant coach for Johnson's father and has been close to the family for a long time.

He even served as Johnson's babysitter at one point.

"He played under my dad and coached under my dad and obviously watched me grow up," Johnson said. "Yeah, he babysat me and helped me go down the straight and narrow path. He's been a long-time friend of not only myself but my family.

"There have certainly been a lot of people who have touched my life from hockey coaches and people close to my parents. Jeff was one of those individuals. He basically watched me grow up as a young player and certainly had a big influence on me as a player. When I got into coaching, I worked with him at Wisconsin for six years and I was very fortunate to have him help me grow as a player and grow as a coach."
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