ST. PAUL — Now the paths of Joel Johnson and Brad Frost will cross as opponents. Johnson was officially introduced as the University of St. Thomas head women's hockey coach on Thursday, June 10 in a press conference at McNeely Hall.

The Tommies, who begin competing in NCAA Division I in the fall, will join the WCHA and be opponents of the University of Minnesota. Johnson has been an assistant coach for Frost since 2010. There have been a number of head coaching opportunities throughout the country in that span. Why did Johnson decide to go after the St. Thomas job?

"There have been different openings, but none of them were St. Thomas," said Johnson, who played soccer, hockey and baseball at Bethel University from 1992-96. "I say that, not as a cheesy line, but just as I can sit in a living room and sell the experience as a recruiting coach, that same pitch is what I knew about St. Thomas.

"I knew the academic excellence. I knew the athletic reputation and now they are transitioning to Division I. As much as I felt I checked all the boxes for what the search committee was looking for, St. Thomas checked all the boxes for me personally. It's just the right fit at the right time and I think that timing is everything."

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Frost and Johnson have worked together at Minnesota for 14 seasons, the first three of which they were assistant coaches for the Gophers under head coach Laura Halldorson. Johnson, in fact, was the one who suggested that Halldorson consider Frost for an assistant coach opening in 2001.

"When my wife and I were first married and he was looking for a job, he stayed in a guest bedroom for a while and it's been fun," said Johnson, who helped the Gophers reach 11 Frozen Fours and win six national championships. "Our paths have stayed connected since we graduated from college and it's typically been around coaching.

"I was at the University of Minnesota and we needed a second assistant. There were some names floating around and I just asked Laura Halldorson would she consider Brad Frost. He had worked at a camp with us one summer and that led for him to join us in an interim capacity."

Johnson left the Gophers in 2004 to become an assistant men's hockey coach at Bethel. He became the Royals' head coach in 2007 and stayed in that position until 2010 when he agreed to return to the Gophers and work for Frost.

"He called me a couple times and said, 'Would you come back?'" Johnson said. "At the time, I had the luxury of being able to stay at home with my kids during the morning and they weren't quite in school yet and I was in a perfect spot. He called and called and I kept saying, 'Nope. No thanks. I'm doing just fine.'

"Eventually, our kids got old enough I had the capacity and it was right for our family and I said, 'Yeah, I'll join.'"

Joel Johnson speaks to one of the University of Minnesota women's hockey players as an associate head coach for the Gophers at Ridder Arena in November 2017 in Minneapolis. Johnson spent 16 seasons as a member of the Gophers staff. He was introduced as the new University of St. Thomas women's hockey head coach on June 10, 2021. (Jim Rosvold/Gopher Athletics)
Joel Johnson speaks to one of the University of Minnesota women's hockey players as an associate head coach for the Gophers at Ridder Arena in November 2017 in Minneapolis. Johnson spent 16 seasons as a member of the Gophers staff. He was introduced as the new University of St. Thomas women's hockey head coach on June 10, 2021. (Jim Rosvold/Gopher Athletics)

Bethel connection

As a member of Frost's staff, Johnson helped the Gophers win national titles in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 and his main focus on the ice was working with the defense. Johnson was a defenseman for the Bethel hockey team in the same recruiting class with Frost, who was a forward for the Royals.

Frost is eighth on Bethel's list for career points and he and Johnson ended up being roommates their last two years of college. There's a number of reasons why Johnson had remained on Frost's staff since 2010.

"He's a really gifted communicator," Frost said of Johnson. "He's got a knack for being appropriately hard on players, yet they know that he cares about them deeply. He cares way more about them as people than he does as hockey players.

"He's got great knowledge and expertise in the game of hockey from coaching so many years, but also from his work with USA Hockey from working with the U18 (women's national team) to now with the (senior) national team as an assistant and interim head coach. He's a really gifted guy and someone you want to continue to get to know and have him as a coach."

Johnson continues to have a connection to Bethel. His daughter, Megan, recently completed her first season as a forward for the Royals hockey team.

University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan (right) speaks with Joel Johnson (center) and his wife, Shannon, before a press conference introducing Johnson as the Tommies' new women’s hockey head coach on June 10, 2021, at McNeely Hall in St. Paul, Minn. (Courtesy of Mark Brown/St. Thomas)
University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan (right) speaks with Joel Johnson (center) and his wife, Shannon, before a press conference introducing Johnson as the Tommies' new women’s hockey head coach on June 10, 2021, at McNeely Hall in St. Paul, Minn. (Courtesy of Mark Brown/St. Thomas)

Looking at the Tommies

Johnson takes over a St. Thomas team that, In their last season in the MIAC and in Division III, finished 6-2-0 in a season abbreviated because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Tommies won or shared six MIAC regular season titles (2019, 2018, 2016, 2014 2004, 2003) since the conference began sponsoring the sport in 1998.

St. Thomas plans to have 24 players on its roster in the fall and forward Anna Erickson, a junior forward and Fargo North High School graduate, said that 12 of the players will be new to the program. Erickson and some of the returning players met with Johnson recently.

"We had a phone call a couple days ago and then a group of three of us (going to be) seniors met with him on campus a few days ago and had a conversation with him for about an hour or two," Erickson said. "We got on the same page with some things.

"It was good and we really liked him and I think he really does embody everything we were looking for in a head coach. We're happy with the athletic department finding him and we're excited to see what he can do for us."

Johnson would not lock down a specific style of play for fans to expect and is looking at how the program will gauge success as it heads into the WCHA, which has had the most national championship winners in the country.

"One of the things coaches are known for is, 'Should you go with what the players bring in or do you want to dictate the style?'" Johnson said. "I think every good coach knows that it's a combination of both ... It's going to be some sort of hybrid of what our players gifts and unique talents are and what we want to see.

"What I can say is the non-negotiables are not related to skill. At the Division I level, you have to have a baseline of talent to have on-ice success. But you don't have to have any talent to live out the right way, according to our values, work hard, be passionate, be a great teammate and to have incredibly positive body language."

He said that there will be a search committee put together to help him find his assistant coaches. As he goes into head coaching again, Frost sounds like he knows that Johnson made the right choice.

"He certainly did not need anything for his resume or his ego," Frost said. "He's not an ego kind of guy. I think there's been plenty of opportunity for him to become a head coach over the last five years and he's always chosen to stay at the University (of Minnesota) for one reason or another.

"But to have the opportunity to start a new program at the Division I level, to not have to move his family ... It just really seemed like a no-brainer for him and his family."

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