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When Mark Johnson steps behind the bench for the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team in Vancouver starting this weekend, he will have been well-groomed for the challenge. Born to it, you might say.
Two men are generally acknowledged to be the greatest U.S. hockey coaches ever: One is Herb Brooks, who coached Johnson during the unforgettable 1980 Olympic year. Brooks was a master motivator—mercurial, unpredictable, capable of mind games and savage verbal assaults. Brooks called Johnson, who at 5'9" and 155 pounds was the U.S.'s leading scorer at the Lake Placid Games, the player who made the team go.
The other great U.S. coach is Badger Bob Johnson: Mark's dad. Mark played for him for three years at the University of Wisconsin, the six-time NCAA-title-winning program that Bob built virtually from scratch. Nearly two decades after Bob's death from brain cancer, Mark still has and consults his father's journals, which describe specific practices—drills, power plays, forechecking schemes—from those Wisconsin years.
Mark has also inherited Badger Bob's infectious love for the game. Bob's favorite expression, "It's a great day for hockey!" could serve for Mark as he builds a legacy in the women's game that could rival the success his father and Brooks enjoyed on the men's side. In seven years as women's coach at Wisconsin, the 52-year-old Johnson has gone 210-39-22, winning three NCAA titles in the last four seasons. Four months after being named Olympic coach in January 2009, he guided the U.S. women's national team to the second of its two straight world titles.
Still, Johnson knows sportswriters will not be dwelling on those achievements in Vancouver; he knows what clips will be interspersed during telecasts of the Games. "I'll answer questions about 1980, but it doesn't define me," he says. "It was just part of my life. A fun part."
That 1980 team was an implausible underdog—even the players couldn't believe they beat the Soviets. The 2010 U.S. women's team? Anything less than gold will be a disappointment. "We're not in the miracle business," says USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. "We're in the expectation business."
With expectations comes pressure, and there is also the formidable obstacle of host Canada, which has won the last two Olympic gold medals and will be playing in front of a rabid crowd. Canada has beaten the U.S. seven times in 10 meetings during the teams' pre-Olympic tours, but Johnson seems undaunted—"He's so even-keeled," says defenseman Angela Ruggiero, one of two U.S. players who were alive when Johnson competed in Lake Placid—and, as always, relentlessly positive.
"I learned from my dad, you'd better have a little bit of fun every day," says Johnson, whose practices are fast-paced, offense-oriented and competitive. "Herb Brooks isn't the model. If it's not fun, you're going to lose them. What's the fun part of the game? Goals."
The biggest differences between men's and women's hockey are hitting—there's no checking in the women's game—and shooting. Women don't shoot as well as men, and Johnson, who never weighed more than 170 pounds but scored more than 500 points in his 11-year NHL career, believes that's because coaches don't work with them enough on their hands. They need to be relaxed and quick, yet strong.
"Early on, a lot of the players asked me, 'Are practices always this fun? Is he going to change?'" says Olympic goalie Jessie Vetter, who played four years for Johnson at Wisconsin. "I can remember only one practice he made us skate for a while after a loss."