|U.S. Women's head coach Mark Johnson has been the National Team's bench boss since 2006.
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It’s fitting the United States Women’s hockey team will face Sweden on Monday with the right to play for a gold medal on the line. This sort of circumstance is nothing to U.S. head coach and former Penguin Mark Johnson, one of the heroes of the ‘Miracle on Ice.’
Thirty years ago, on Feb. 22, 1980, a group of U.S. collegiate stars led by Johnson and coached by Herb Brooks stunned the world by upsetting the heavily favored Soviets, 4-3, to earn the right to play for the gold medal at Lake Placid.
Johnson, then 22, played the game of his life in that contest, scoring twice for the Americans, including a tally with less than one second remaining in the first period to draw the U.S. even, 2-2.
“It was a lot of preparation over six months to get to that opportunity,” Johnson said. “When the opportunity presented itself, our team was pretty focused on what we wanted to do and the game plan we had in the back of our mind as to how we might be able to defeat this team.”
Johnson’s dramatic goal changed the entire course of the game. When the two teams returned to the ice for the second period, Soviet head coach Viktor Tikhonov shocked the world by replacing netminder Vladislav Tretiak, who at that time was considered the top goaltdender in the world, with backup Vladimir Myshkin.
Although Tikhonov later called the move to switch goalies the “biggest mistake of my career,” the Soviet coach felt Tretiak was lackadaisical in his effort to stop Johnson’s backhander before the period expired.
“If you look at different peeks throughout that tournament in the games we played, a lot of people made contributions,” Johnson said. “In the Russian game I was fortunate enough to make a couple contributions. Certainly one of those was at a key time at the end of the first period when I tied the score with less than a second to go. That was a big boost to our hockey club.”
Still, the Soviets were able to regroup and took a 3-2 lead into the final 20 minutes following an Aleksandr Maltsev power-play goal in the middle frame.
Johnson drew the game even, 3-3, 8:39 into the third period when he scored his second goal of the night by sliding a shot under Myshkin on a power play.
“I definitely scored a couple big goals in that game,” Johnson said. “It was a unique team from the standpoint that nobody really was interested in or cared who scored goals. It was more about what the team was going to do or who was going to step up at a particular time to make a play to continue the momentum.”
U.S. captain Mike Eruzione stepped up next by firing a wrist shot past Myshkin just 1:21 later to give the Americans a 4-3 lead.
Somehow, despite all the odds being stacked against them, the Americans held on down the stretch and allowed Eruzione’s goal to hold up as the game winner.
“You were in the moment and in tune with the task at hand,” Johnson said of the final minutes of the third period. “There wasn’t time to think about something else because they were so powerful and good they would have steamrolled us. Your thought process was 100 percent on what you were doing. Anything outside of that, we wouldn’t have been successful.”
What is often lost in the shuffle when people discuss the ‘Miracle on Ice’ victory is that beating the Soviets did not clinch the gold medal. The U.S. still had to face a strong Finland squad two days later.
Johnson, who led the Americans with 11 points (5G-6A) during the Olympics, credited the mindset of Brooks for allowing the team to stay focused enough to beat Finland, 4-2.
A master motivator, Brooks later served as a scout and head coach for the Penguins during the late 1990s and early 2000s before his death in a 2003 traffic accident.
“The next day at practice on Saturday, Herb got our attention pretty quick and reminded us what was ahead and not to take the Finns lightly,” Johnson said. “The message was very strong. Our practice was firm.
“He put everybody in a frame of mind that it would be irrelevant that you just pulled the biggest upset of all-time if you lost the game on Sunday. He said the win on Friday becomes meaningless with a loss to Finland. I think everybody understood the importance of what Sunday morning was all about.”
|Mark Johnson's U.S. Women's squad takes on Sweden in semifinal action on Monday. |
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Following his Olympic heroics, Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004, signed with the Penguins, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 1977 NHL Entry Draft out of Wisconsin. In 136 games with the Penguins from 1980-82, Johnson accumulated 23 goals and 39 assists.
“Obviously it was my first time playing in the NHL so my time in Pittsburgh was very positive,” Johnson said. “The fans were very supportive. It’s a great sports town – whether you are a Steelers fan, Pirates fan or Penguins fan. People always supported their home team.”
Johnson later became part of the Penguins’ family for a second time when his father, Bob, was named head coach in 1990. The elder Johnson led Pittsburgh to their first Stanley Cup championship in 1991, before succumbing to brain cancer in November 1992.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Mark Johnson has developed into a pretty fair coach himself. He has been the bench boss for the University of Wisconsin women’s team since 2002, leading them to a national championship in 2006.
That same year, Johnson was named head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, a spot he will hold through this season’s Olympics, at which time he will return to Wisconsin. Johnson says he has found it rewarding to watch the Americans grow as a team leading up to this point.
“You start in the fall with a group of athletes and you begin that journey of them getting to know one another and the group getting to know you as a coach,” Johnson said. “As you wind that part up and get to playing games, you find out more about yourselves. The journey really starts from that point developing your team’s character and identity. As you overcome obstacles and adversities you develop your strengths.
“I would say it has been like an NHL team getting ready for the playoffs. We are working on little things so that we are peaking in the medal round and playing our best hockey. That is where we are right now.”
Johnson certainly has the U.S. peaking heading into Monday’s semifinal contest. The Americans bring a perfect 3-0 record into the contest following victories of 12-1 over China, 13-0 over the Russians and 6-0 over Finland.
A victory over the Swedes would send Johnson’s squad to the Gold Medal Game against either Canada or Finland on Thursday night. The challenge for Johnson’s team might not be what it was in 1980, but the former Penguin appears set to build upon an already impressive resume.