Monday press conference: Mark Johnson

Women's hockey coach discussed chasing Minnesota and a renewed emphasis on the rule book

Mark, the Shell has a beautiful new ice sheet and it's a wonderful facility. How much of an advantage is that for you now?

"I think the best part of it is they'd painted the ceiling. I'm not sure when the last time it got painted, but just a nice white coat of paint on the ceiling brightens up the whole atmosphere and certainly makes a better place to run practices. But they've installed new boards, a new refrigeration system, new pipes, new glass, and so it's a real comfortable place to run practices and to work out on a daily basis. And that's been basically what we've had in place since I started.

"I mean, the facility we have is locker rooms and access to our academic facility, our weight rooms, where we eat dinner. Everything's right in place there. And now with the upgrades as far as adding the new pipes and the glass, it just makes it a real comfortable place to run things on a daily basis. So we're real fortunate."

Mark, as you look at the WCHA, your thoughts on who might have the upper hand in the league?

"Well, I just got through an e-mail, the preseason All-American or first team All-American list, and Minnesota has three of them. And one of their Olympic players isn't on it, Lyndsay Wall, who was ineligible as a freshman at the second semester, she made the second team. So Minnesota's going to be very strong. They really didn't lose a lot of players off their national championship team. They've added some depth in a couple kids out of the state of Minnesota.

"So they're going to be the team to beat not only within our conference, but I think throughout the whole landscape of women's hockey. So they'll be a real challenge and, although we did beat them last year up in their facility and were very close with them in the other three games. The challenge for everybody in the country is to beat Minnesota."

That said, with the victory up there and how tight you played them after that, what kind of gap remains between your program and their program?

"Well, the big gap is, you know, they have a couple of players that I don't think, I don't think, a lot of other teams don't have. When you put Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz on the ice and on the same team, whether they're playing for Minnesota, whether they're playing for our Under-22 national team, or whether they're playing for our Olympic team, there's not many groups that can stop them consistently. They're just game-breakers and they make the difference. And if you saw the national championship game, you know those two players carried them to the title. So as long as they're around, they're going to be difficult to play against.

"But with the defensive core I have coming back, the goaltenders we have coming back, we're able to contain them somewhat. You just can't contain them an entire game and an entire weekend series. So that's the challenge presented when you have those two types of players. They'll be in our system this year, and then they'll be with the Olympic team next year, and whether they come back to finish their senior year at Minnesota, that's a big question for a lot of people that don't have an answer to that right now. But as long as they're on their team they're tough to play against."

Mark, was last year's team the best team this program has ever had? And secondly, can you reach those standards that were set last year?

"Well, the two teams I've had, we were certainly deeper last year and then we had a couple question marks early on and they got answered very quickly in our goaltending, on who was going to score goals for us, and that came from young players in Meghan Horras and Sara Bauer and Lindsay Macy. So it was a strong team. It was a good team.

"And the two different scenarios that we have, and the men are going to have one of them this year, is we're going to eight teams, which is real exciting for a lot of teams around the country. When the NCAA tournament only has four teams, every game throughout your season is extremely meaningful, whether it's in October or the middle of January or at the end, you had to do well in all 32 games or 34 games, depending on how many you were playing. And if you had a tie somewhere in November, that might cost you the bid to get in the Final Four. And so it was really tough and challenging.

"And this group, the two I've had and the previous one, prior to me coming on board, were very close. And I think the theme for this year's team is, you know, we've been close long enough, we need to get in. And so the challenge becomes, you know, playing consistent, not living on your past and coming out of the gates here against Wayne State, and, you know, really starting where we finished off last year.

"We've got a lot of good players coming back. We've got some of the pieces that you need to have a good team. And they've worked hard over the summer. They worked hard in preseason. We had an intrasquad game Friday night at the Kohl Center and saw a lot of good things. So now it's time to get challenged and play some games.

"The big change is going to come, and you'll see it firsthand if you come to our games, you'll see it at the men's game, is there's been a real emphasis and there's going to be an emphasis on how the game's going to be called this year by our referees, mandated and sent down from the NCAA. There's not going to be a particular point of emphasis. The emphasis is on calling the rules that are in the rulebook.

"So I think early on what you're going to see, and what we saw Friday night because that WCHA officials ref our games, there's going to be a bunch of penalties, I think more so probably to start with on the men's side than on the women's side. But it's going to be a change for our fans because if you looked at some of the exhibition games that took place over this past weekend, 20, 25, 30 penalties were common in a game. So it's going to be an adjustment, I think not only for the players, for the coaches that are involved in the games, but equally as important for the fans that are going to be watching the game. And early on it'll be special teams and they better be good."

Mark, you hear that speech every year from every league, that there's going to be a point of emphasis, that this is going to change. Why do you sense this is different, if you do?

"Well, talking to Mike (Eaves) in the meetings in Manhattan, and we had a similar set of meetings up in Minneapolis with our referees, and we saw clips of the final championship game last year between Denver and Maine. And they had 40 different clips and out of the 40 clips the NCAA and the Rules Committee thought 40 penalties should have been called, and in reality only two of them were called.

"And so the emphasis came out and it was an open letter to all coaches at the Division I and Division III levels, both men and women, that, you know, enough's enough, and the emphasis this year is going to be on the rulebook and how the rules are written and how they should be called. So from what we're hearing on our end, that the referees are being instructed by Greg Shepherd, who's in charge of our officials and is in charge of the men's, this is how they're going to be called, we're going to start from day one, and we're going to run the same way through the entire season.

"And that's a common question we asked too, that, yeah, in October in November you call the game a certain way, but as we get over the holidays it becomes a different scenario. So we've been instructed that it will not change and it's going to be a growing and learning process for everybody involved. And it should be real interesting the first couple months here on what actually transpires, if the players are willing to adapt to the system that's going to be called and whether the coaches are going to try to instruct players in a different way of how to play the game.

"My only concern is, and I asked the question at the meeting, was what kind of game are we trying to go to, and what is the perfect game, so at the end of the season we have some tangible things that we can look at, say, yeah, the game has gotten a lot better, it was a little goofy or it wasn't the way we wanted early on and that's why the penalties were so tight. So some type of measurable format so that at the end of the season we can sit down in Florida at our meeting and say, yeah, we made a lot of progress because of the way the game was called."

Mark, you've obviously been a part of numerous championship teams and won a variety of individual awards. But what does this week, going into the Hall of Fame, mean to you and can you sense an anticipation, especially as you get nearer and nearer to the date now?

"Well, as Barry (Alvarez) mentioned, you know, distractions are part of our business. You try to limit it, especially your first weekend when you're playing. So I won't be at practice Thursday for obvious reasons. But to answer your question, it's going to be a real exciting night. My mom's coming in. My sister's flying in. My brother's going to be up there with one of his kids. My family's going to be there.

"And it's something that, you know, you don't dream about as a kid, you don't think about. It just sort of comes at some point in your life when you look back on it, and you feel real fortunate to have gotten an opportunity to do so many things in the hockey business that I've had a chance to do not only as a player, but as a coach. And this night will sort of cap everything.

"And, you know, having my dad part of it and him enshrined also, and all the wonderful players that USA hockey has developed not only as players, but the coaches that are involved with it. It's a big honor and it's going to be really neat to be part of the night. And it'll give me an opportunity to thank, you know, a lot of the coaches that had a big part of who I was as a hockey player and how I became a good hockey player and the opportunities that were given to me through the USA hockey programs and through the different coaches that were supported by our governing body."

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