Monday Press Conference: Mark Johnson

Johnson talks about Minnesota's talent, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and postseason play

"Perfect. I've got two extra tickets for tomorrow night's game that I won't be able to use. Anybody interested can see me when I'm finished here. This past weekend we played North Dakota here at the Kohl Center Friday and Saturday. And, you know, ended up getting four points, played pretty well. Actually played very well Friday night and two periods Saturday we played very well.

"So out of the weekend, five out of six periods, I wasn't very happy with the second period Saturday night. I didn't think we put forth an effort and, you know, let the team know after the second period that if they're going to compete against teams, irrelevant of where they are in the standings and where you're playing them, you've got to work hard and you've got to play hard. And they responded and came out in the third period Saturday and got the job done. So I was pleased with that.

"But, you know, the challenge this weekend is going up to Minnesota, they've not lost a conference game. They have not lost, other than to Dartmouth before Christmastime out in Dartmouth, so they present a lot of problems, a lot of things that we have to work on in practice to be able to go on the ice sheet up at Ridder (Arena) on Saturday afternoon to compete with them. Their power play's about 32 percent. Their penalty kill's over 90 percent. They've got three of the top scorers in the country. And so they present a lot of situations for a lot of teams that can give you a lot of headaches.

"But, you know, we had two very good games down here at the Kohl Center earlier in the season. We lost 2-0 in the first game and then tied them in our second game. So the one thing, I was talking to Bo (Ryan) as I walked down here, this is a fun week, you know, not only for our hockey team, but obviously for the basketball team and several programs here at the university. These are the games as coaches and as players you look forward to, when you play the top teams in the country, you play good opponents, you play undefeated opponents, you play Olympic players.

"Irrelevant of the sport, I think the players get excited as you get into the week of practice and as you get closer to the game. The coaching staff, along with the players, get fired up to play these type of events. So starting tomorrow night and then going through Sunday, you know, we'll have a lot of athletes here on campus that are going to get opportunities to play in games that they work hard to get them positioned to play in. So it's going to be a lot of fun, and I look forward to what we're able to do on their ice sheet up at Ridder against, you know, the top team in the country."

Each year it seems like the challenge for this program is trying to get over that hump and compete with the Minnesota-Duluths, the Minnesotas each year. Do you feel like this is the best this team's ever been equipped to challenge those teams for a Western Collegiate Hockey Association title, for going into the NCAA, all those type of things?

"Well, I think our team here at Wisconsin is certainly, if not the best, one of the better ones that we've had since the program started. The problem becomes, you know, Minnesota still has the dynamic players that they had a couple years ago in Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, you know, Kelly Stephens has developed as a real fine player and is part of our Olympic program now. And they brought in Lyndsay Wall, a defenseman who's going to be part of our Olympic team. And so they have four players that not only are probably the better players in our league at their respective positions, but are probably some of the top players in the world.

"And that, if you have that ingredient on your team it's going to separate you from the other teams. Are we closer than we were a couple years ago? I think we're certainly closer than we were even last year. The problem is how do you contain these players and on any given night their ability to dominate a game? And so we were able to do it down here in Madison. Now we have to go on their ice sheet up in Minneapolis and try to do the same thing.

"If we get the same type of effort, if we stay out of the penalty box and only give them maybe two or three penalty opportunities, you know, we have a chance to win. If you're going to give them seven or eight power plays, your chances of beating this team are not very good because their power play is basically made up of four Olympic players that compete at a very high level and are very difficult to stop. That's why they score so many goals, their power play is very potent.

"But at the same token, you know, our players understand the challenge, they understand the task, and it comes down to continuing with our habits that we've been forming over the course of the season and if we're able to go out and execute. The bottom line is if we execute the way we're capable, we have a chance to beat them, and that's the exciting part about it. There's not a lot of teams in the country that can say that. And so where we are right now in comparison to Minnesota, we're certainly closer, but I think you'll get a true essence of where this program is in relationship to their program I think when Natalie and Krissy are gone, and you take two of the world-class players out of their program and all of a sudden I think you become a lot closer."

Actual talent aside, is that maybe the biggest challenge, convincing them mentally to think and go into these things saying that we can compete, you are there, when they haven't been able to do it in past years as they get closer and closer?

"Absolutely. I mean, the biggest thing is you can't be afraid. You can't be fearful when you step on the ice. And you can't be intimidated. And we've had players, Molly Engstrom and Carla MacLeod, you know, Meaghan Mikkelson, Bobbi Jo Slusar have all had international experience. Jackie Friesen has played with the Canadian under-22 team for a couple events. And so they have international experiences. So the players that have that are certainly not intimidated by these Olympic players. They've played against them at a high level.

"And so if you can take that ingredient out and just say, hey, execute the game plan that we've put together, you know, put forth the effort, do the little things that you need to do against this team with your penalty killing and your power play, and if you're able to take care of those little things, since I've been here, you know, the games have been 2-1, 3-1. We've beat them. We've beat them in overtime. We've tied them. The

One other side question, there's another book that's coming out on the 25th anniversary here of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Have you had a chance to read an advanced copy of the book at all, and what are your thoughts about yet here it is again, and another thing, last year it was a movie, now it's a book coming out.

"Yeah, in February it'll be, another five weeks it'll be 25 years, so I'm sure the phone's going to ring again with some reporters and stuff. But the book I've not fully read. I read the transcript when Wayne Coffey was finished with it. I talked to him for a couple days when he was in town. And it seems to be like it's going to be a pretty good read. I've heard a lot of positive responses. Actually when he mailed me a copy, my 10th grader took it out of the mailbox and wrapped it up and was reading it at school, and so I haven't really had a chance to go through it.

"But I think it gives you a different perspective. I think a lot of things that have been written, a lot of things that we have watched are sort of about the moment. And I think this book will give you a little bit of flavor and respect to, you know, backgrounds one each of the players, some of the things that they're involved in right now.

"I mean, it makes for a pretty good story because everybody knows what happened at Lake Placid, you know, but what is, you know, what's Mark Pavelich doing right now and what's he done the last 10 or 15 years, or Phil Verchota, what's he involved in, and, you know, his family, his business, has he had some hardships. So it's got some stories in there I think that people that have followed that team and know some of the players will see some stories that they haven't seen or read about before."

What was your 10th grader's review of the book?

"Well, he got in trouble because the class he was reading it in, he wasn't supposed to be reading this book, so he got reprimanded. But it's fun because there's some things about, obviously some of the things that are part of my life growing up here in Madison and since the Olympics until present that, you know, maybe not a lot of people know about that are outside of Madison, that don't know myself or my family very well. And, you know, any time you can come up with some new stories that catch people's eyes, I mean, Mark Wells is an example of, you know, a guy that went from the top of the mountain to, you know, almost living on the street, had some financial hardships, had some health issues.

"And so, you know, it's like when you motivate and talk to people about motivation and reaching the pinnacle, you know, for a lot of us between 18 and 22, we were at the top of the mountain, putting that gold medal around your neck and, as we all know, the sun comes up the next day and you have the rest of your lives to live. And just because you won a gold medal doesn't mean your life's going to be full of memorable things from that point forward.

"But, you know, Jimmy Craig had some struggles with a car accident in Boston where somebody lost their life. So it's just a story, I think, that if you like what you saw on the ice I think you'll get a perspective of, you know, the players, not only did we have a good team, but they were human beings and their lives went on. And a lot of them are similar to, you know, people that are close to you and your friends, whether we have dentists, or we have investment brokers, we have stockbrokers, we have hockey coaches, we have people that have struggled. And it's just a story about a group of athletes that, you know, from Lake Placid forward."

I was just wondering how much of a focus the tournaments coming up in March are for you at this point in the season?

"Well, I think it becomes a focus, but it can't, you can't get distracted on a daily basis. I think what you do on a daily basis and the habits that you form on a daily basis, and the big thing, whether it's women's ice hockey or women's basketball or whatever sport you're involved in, you need to look for consistency. The teams that are consistent from early October through the end of March are usually the teams that are going to be successful.

"And we've been very consistent to this point, and the big thing that I want to keep away from our group is any type of distractions and looking down the road too far, because the minute you do that, you know, you can hit a bump and you can stumble real fast, and then to recover you may not have time to. So the big thing right now is to stay focused and prepare for one game at a time and do the things that you've done since day one earlier in the season."

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