The past few months have been a time of incredible new challenges and opportunities for women’s hockey coach Joel Johnson. In early June, the White Bear Lake native and long-time Minnesota Gophers assistant coach got his own program to run, when he was named the first NCAA Division I head coach at the University of St. Thomas.
And in late July, the spotlight got even brighter.
On Wednesday, Johnson was one of three men named to lead the Americans’ quest for Olympic gold next winter in China. Johnson, 47, will coach the Team USA women, who are defending world champions, having won the nation’s second Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey in 2018.
He joins Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who will coach the American men’s team, and Bottineau, N.D., native David Hoff, who will coach the American Paralympic team. Johnson noted that Bethany Brausen, recently named his top assistant coach at St. Thomas, will run the Tommies’ program this winter during the times he is called away to USA Hockey duties.
“We’ve got a great plan in place, we’ve got a great staff and players are aware of the huge opportunity,” Johnson said Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters from around the country. “I’ve shared with them, just as any player on the women’s side would take time off...in such a unique and special experience, I’ve got great support from (St. Thomas) administration and our players that they’re going to let me do the same thing.”
Johnson will get a kind of Olympic trial run next month, when he coaches Team USA at the Women’s World Championship, which will be played in Calgary. The tournament was originally scheduled for the spring, but was delayed due to the pandemic.
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For Hoff, the appointment to lead Team USA at the Paralympics — which begin on March 4 — comes a decade after he answered an unexpected email asking if he would like to get involved in the American sled hockey development camp. Hoff is 53 and retired from his career as a high school math teacher two years ago, but he is a substitute teacher and currently leads classes from his basement via Zoom in the tiny Rolette, N.D., school district.
“I had no background in sled hockey in 2011, but I decided as a public school teacher, if nothing else it would be a great learning opportunity for me, working with 60 kids from across the country that had disabilities of all kinds,” said Hoff, who met late Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer there, and fell in love with the sport. “I ended up spending the next six summers working that camp with (Sauer) and it became my favorite camp that I did all year...I’ve planned a lot of things in my life, but this was something I didn’t plan. I simply answered an email.”
Sullivan, 53, is originally from Boston where he played college hockey at Boston University. He is the only American coach to win multiple Stanley Cup titles, having coached Pittsburgh to the NHL’s pinnacle in 2016 and 2017. He has plenty of previous experience with Team USA, both as a player in the 1988 World Junior Championships and the 1997 World Championships and as a coach. At the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, Sullivan was an assistant coach for the American team, which fell to Finland in the quarterfinals of the medal round.
While an agreement has not yet been reached to allow NHL players to compete in Beijing, Sullivan said he is going into the player selection process under the expectation that he will have NHL players to choose from while filling the roster.
“I’m going to operate on the premise that the NHL and the Olympic Committee are going to work toward an agreement and we’re going to participate,” Sullivan said. “Until such time as something changes, that’s how we’re going to operate.”
NHL players have been a part of the Winter Games every year since 1998, with the exception of 2018, when the American team was made up of collegians and pros playing in Europe. Sullivan is the fourth Penguins head coach to also lead the American team in the Olympics, following Bob Johnson (1976), Herb Brooks (1980 and 2002) and Dan Bylsma (2014).
Team USA has won gold twice on the men’s side, in 1960 and in 1980. For the American women, the 2018 gold medal was their second, after they won the inaugural women’s hockey gold medal in 1998. The American Paralympic team will be seeking its fifth gold medal, having won the top prize in 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2018.
The Olympic Winter Games begin Feb. 4.