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"I had (UW football offensive coordinator) Paul Chryst's kids in my backyard skating yesterday and we were having a Super Bowl party, so that's what I told Mike (Eaves), our ice is pretty good back there (for the men's team to practice outdoors).
"Well, if you're a Badger hockey fan, it's a pretty good time of the year. Obviously we've got something unique happening up in Green Bay this weekend. We've got the Gophers coming in to play our team twice. You've got the Winter Olympics starting up and well-represented by former Badger players.
"I'll have two of my former players, one playing for Canada. Carla MacLeod will be playing for the Canadians, and Molly Engstrom from Siren, Wis., will be representing the U.S. And both of them getting an opportunity to fulfill a dream and they worked very hard to put themselves in position. I'm really excited to get an opportunity—because I know a lot of the games are going to be televised. On the men's side, Chris Chelios was named captain last week of our men's team and Brian Rafalski will also be playing.
"So it's a good time to be a hockey fan. The playoffs are just around the corner. So it's an exciting time of the year, especially in the coaching ranks, because the kids can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a long season. It's a two-semester sport. And we've got six games left. We have four games at home, and then we head down to Ohio State to finish off our regular season and get ourselves ready for the playoffs. So I know the players are excited and certainly our coaching staff is very excited about the position we're in right now."
Coach, how disappointed were you after the game on Saturday, after getting so many shots on net and not being able to put the puck in and St. Cloud State only getting, what, 12 shots and scoring a goal and winning?
"It's a good question, because as I was going across the ice to address the team in the locker room, it's like, well, if we hadn't played well and lost the game, certainly we would have been disappointed. But as I entered the locker room, we actually played very well Saturday afternoon. We played better Saturday afternoon than we did Friday in our victory. Our power play was 0-for-7, but it wasn't because we weren't creating chances. We had quite a few chances.
"I can't remember within the game, St. Cloud either getting maybe one or two scoring opportunities in 60 minutes. So I told the team to keep their head up, it's just one of those situations—in our business we call it the X factor—because if the other goalie is pretty good and the puck doesn't want to go in, some nights it just doesn't work out. And so did we play well? Yeah. We created a lot of chances. You betcha. Unfortunately, she was better than what we threw at her that particular day.
"So we take that away as a learning tool, and I'm sure we'll have a couple more games as we get into the playoffs and get involved in the tournament that we can take some learning things. We had an opportunity to pull our goaltender. You know, was there desperation, was there a sense of urgency to try to score a goal late there, and so we saw some good things and we'll take that away from the game and get ourselves ready for Minnesota Friday."
You mentioned a moment ago about Engstrom and MacLeod playing in the Olympics. What does it mean to you, to this program, to have two players from your program playing in the Olympics and you as a former Olympian to see some of your players now playing at that level?
"Well, being a former Olympic player and having gotten in that position, had my dad coached in '76, you know what it's all about. And so then you get a chance to work with some players that have that opportunity and you see their dedication and the time commitment they put in and some of the hurdles that they have to get through to get that opportunity and now they're going to get it, so you're very excited.
"Obviously it helps our program to have that caliber of player and we can put it on the website and you can put pictures in the locker room, and it's great for recruiting. But my satisfaction comes from knowing they're getting an opportunity to really fulfill a dream. It's not about money. It's not about fame. It's just that opportunity, that they're going to put that jersey on and experience this two weeks that they'll cherish for the rest of their lives, because it's not just about the winning and the losing, the winning the medals and not winning the medals.
"The big thing about the Olympics and being a participant is participating. I mean, that's the general theme of the athlete that gets an opportunity to do it. And now they're going to get a chance. I'm excited for the Engstrom family. I know Carla had to go through a lot of loopholes to getting her spot on that team, and so when she was announced about two weeks before Christmas, very excited. And knock on wood, she didn't get injured during that period. So they're both over there. They're e-mailing us on a regular basis. And it's going to be fun to watch them go."
Talking about the e-mails like you just said, have you gotten a chance to really talk to the girls about what it's like to be, you know, obviously you were on the home ice. You had that ability. But they're away from the United States, away from all of the home fans. Have you been able to talk to them about what it's like and what they're going through?
"No. In fact, as I leave here, I'll probably e-mail Carla because I got one this morning from her and she said she's got her laptop in her living accommodations and they've got the wireless Internet, so I'll be able to communicate. But the big thing, as they were selected on the team and we had a couple conversations with Molly, it's just enjoy the whole experience.
"Obviously both teams have a great chance to win a gold medal. I think as they get towards the end of the tournament, you'll probably see Canada and the U.S. battling for that gold medal. So one of them is going to have a gold and possibly the other one might have a silver, unless there's an upset along the way. It's just fun to see kids work hard and then get this opportunity, and now they're going to get it."
Coach Johnson, you have the opportunity to get your 100th win this weekend. Can you just talk about your thoughts about that? And maybe a little bittersweet I guess since you didn't get it on the road, but now you can do it at home.
"I didn't really realize it until I was at a function Saturday night and then someone came up and mentioned that to me. So I think in our profession numbers add up if you're doing good things and this obviously one has come upon us and playing against Minnesota, it would be nice (big smile). It would be real nice."
Kind of picking up on the theme there of you saying it being real nice to get against Minnesota. Obviously everybody knows the long-standing tradition of the rivalry on the men's side, the Gophers and the Badgers. How is the rivalry on the women's side, and is it growing year by year to that level, where you get a smile on your face and say you want to get it against them?
"Well, I think the players understand it and certainly the coaches. I know when I was on the men's side and I remember when I was a player, when you came to practice Monday and that weekend you were playing Minnesota the pace was a little bit quicker. The intensity was a little bit higher. The focus was a little bit better, just because it's an atmosphere that's fun for the players to play in. It's fun for the coaches.
"And the rivalry we have now with Minnesota has been a good one. I mean, they beat us in overtime last year in the WCHA playoffs. We went up there earlier in the year and for the first time in the history of our program we swept them there. So, they're going to come down Friday night and it should be very good hockey, not only Friday, but Saturday, and a lot of fun to play in."
Coach, can you just talk about what you think are some of the elements of why this team has been able to be so successful this year?
"Well, the big thing I talked about and do each year is your ability to be consistent in your preparation. And so far that would probably be the main reason. You know, we can go out on a Friday night and maybe play 80 or 90 percent up to our capabilities, and then we'll come back the next day and play 100 percent and play as well as we can.
"I think the ability for this team to be consistent irrelevant to what's going on, through injuries, through some school things, through family issues that we have to deal with when we're dealing with 22 and 23 players. And then during Christmas break and just after it, all of a sudden three players are gone to Germany (with the Canadian U-22 team), my three best players, and we're playing games over in Wayne State. You don't know how the team and the group is going to respond in those situations.
"And so I think their ability, one, to condition themselves, to commit themselves to being in good shape, and then secondly, irrelevant of who you're playing, come out that night and play to the best of your ability, play up to your capabilities.
"And if you're able to do that over the course of the season, yeah, you'll have a few bumps along the way, but you won't have too many if you can keep your performance at a consistent level. I think that's probably been a good way to identify our team. We've had injuries. We've had people missing. And so, you know, that's how you respond to them."
You guys have the ability this weekend to clinch the WCHA if you were to so sweep Minnesota. How do you keep your players' mindset for the remaining few weekends that, you know, they can see the end is near, but there's still some hockey to play?
"To be honest, the way I deal with it, I really don't talk to the team about it. I mean, our preparation for practice, whether it's today or Thursday, I don't spend a lot of time on polls. I don't spend a lot of time on if you do this, this will happen, because the most important game right now is Friday night and our preparation for Minnesota. And so that's the approach I take.
"If they're going to go on the Internet and get involved in chat rooms and do all that, so be it, as long as they show up to practice ready to work and ready to get themselves prepared and stay focused. Obviously in the back of everybody's mind we see what's at stake, but you really have to take one game at a time.
"If you start to get ahead of yourself and try to anticipate and predict, you can get yourself in trouble real quickly, and before you know it, things could be spiraling downhill very rapidly. So we don't talk about it. My job is to make sure they're ready to go Friday night, come out the way we did Saturday afternoon up in St. Cloud. If we do that, we'll have a chance to be successful."