- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

MILWAUKEE | Mark Johnson’s first Olympic experience began in his father’s garage, years before he became part of the “Miracle on Ice” team.

His winding career will take him back to the Olympics. On Tuesday, he was appointed coach of the U.S. women’s hockey team for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“I’ve played in playoff games in the NHL; I’ve had an opportunity to win championships here at Wisconsin. But to me the biggest platform is the Olympics,” Johnson said. “To get an opportunity to coach energetic, very skilled, world-class players up in Vancouver is going to be a special journey.”

Olympic tryouts are expected to be held in Blaine, Minn., in August. Johnson plans to move to the Twin Cities this summer and will guide the team during an Olympic tuneup tour, featuring 10 exhibition games in the United States beginning Sept. 25 and the 2009 Four Nations Cup in Finland in November.

Johnson is glad the team will have time to bond.

“Part of why we were successful in Lake Placid is that we prepared ourselves,” he said. “We knew the opportunity we were going to have.”

Johnson has led the women’s program in several major international competitions the last three years since Ben Smith left after a third-place finish in Turin in 2006. Smith coached in the previous three Olympics, leading the United States to bronze, silver and gold finishes.

Now Johnson will get his turn.

“I just get goose pimples. I just get really excited,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m going to have a blast doing it.”

Johnson played at Wisconsin under his father, Bob, before becoming a star of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal. He scored twice in the landmark medal-round victory over the Soviet Union and assisted on the gold-winning goal against Finland two days later.

Johnson went on to spend 11 seasons in the NHL before joining Wisconsin as an assistant men’s hockey coach. He took over the women’s program at Wisconsin in 2002 and has led the Badgers the NCAA title game the last three seasons, winning in 2006 and 2007. He will take a leave of absence for the 2009-10 season to work with USA Hockey.

“He has played in the games. He knows what that ultimate pressure is like of competing for a gold medal as an athlete,” said Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey’s executive director. “The pressurized environment that we will experience in Vancouver I think will be unlike any that the sport of hockey has ever seen before - both on the men’s side and the women’s side.”

The 51-year-old Johnson said the key will be to embrace that pressure but not stress about it.

“I don’t mind pressure. That’s the world we live in and when you’re in coaching, you’re going to have to deal with that,” Johnson said. “Stress is a lot more challenging, a lot more difficult and not very healthy.”

Angela Ruggiero, a three-time Olympian, is impressed with Johnson’s credentials.

“We’re obviously excited as a team to have a coach, and to know that it’s Mark Johnson with all of his experience at every level possible,” she said. “Having that Olympic experience is important.”

Before his starring role in 1980, Johnson already had had a taste of Olympic preparation as a teenager when his father coached the 1976 team. Johnson played in 11 training games before being cut but watched as his father basically ran the team out of their family’s garage in Madison.

“There wouldn’t be any cars parked in our garage. We’d have boxes and bags and equipment laying all over,” he said. “My dad ended up cutting me. There was just too much pressure at that time with me only being a senior. But it really planted a seed, and as I watched my dad experience that season and putting together the team and getting the opportunity to coach at that level.”

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