Olympics: Johnson relishes another shot at gold

U.S. women go for first crown since 1998 tonight against Canada

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Mark Johnson once skated for the Penguins as a baby-faced rookie, shortly after scoring two goals against the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice. But the Pittsburgh-related influences in his life resonate much more through a couple of coaches who plied their trade there ...

"Badger" Bob Johnson, his father, who guided the Penguins "to the top of the mountain" with their first Stanley Cup in 1991.

And Herb Brooks, coach of the Miracle team and, much later, the Penguins.

Both are gone now, but it appears, to those who know Mark Johnson, that a bit of both live on with the man who will try to coach the United States women to a gold medal against Canada at 6:30 p.m. today at Canada Hockey Place.

"I've tried to take things from my father, from Herb, from everybody I've played for or worked with," Johnson said. "But you have to have your own approach, your own style. And those two were about as different as you get."

Bob Johnson was Mr. Positive, always upbeat, the man who spoke, "It's a great day for hockey," only because it was a deeply rooted belief. Brooks, no less kind and generous away from the rink, would use any tactic available to get what he wanted from his players, including casting himself in the role of villain.

So, which is Mark Johnson?

"When my dad left the University of Wisconsin and went to coach the Calgary Flames, it took probably two months for the reporters there to figure him out," Johnson said. "They didn't think he was genuine. They didn't think a guy could conduct himself the way he did, with his enthusiasm and energy. But when they saw he was like that 24 hours a day ... you know, I grew up watching that. I saw his passion for the game. And it was contagious."

And Brooks?

"Herb was 180 degrees different. The way he conducted himself with us in 1980, I think you've seen it in the movie."

That would be "Miracle," in which Kurt Russell nailed the portrayal of Brooks as an often ruthless authoritarian.

"I've told people that, if you've seen the movie, it actually makes Herb out to be a pretty nice guy," Johnson said, laughing.

"But whether you like my dad's approach or Herb's, their visions were similar. They were able to take groups of players, get them to focus for periods of times and stay together as a team. They were successful in the colleges and pros because they got people to believe in what they were doing."

Johnson, 52, is now a father of five, and his full-time job is head coach of the powerful Wisconsin women's team. He took over the national team in 2006, shortly after its stunning semifinal loss to Sweden and public discord between the players and longtime coach Ben Smith.

Smith led with a heavy hand, and forward Natalie Darwitz describes the difference between Smith and Johnson as "night and day," and other players concur. Johnson is not the shouting type, his calm demeanor behind the bench reminiscent of his father. But he also is reputed to have instilled the discipline necessary for a program such as this, where the players live and travel together for months leading up to the Olympics.

Defenseman Angela Ruggiero, the Americans' best player, laughed when asked if Johnson is more his father or Brooks.

"If I answer the wrong way, I might get taken off the power play," she said. "Well, he doesn't get down, and you can't really shake him up that much. But you also know that, when he says something, he means it. He's very focused."

The focus today, of course, will be gold. The United States won the first Olympic women's tournament in 1998, but Canada has taken the past two. The Americans will be slight underdogs today, based mostly on recent exhibition meetings between the sport's only two powers.

Johnson does not discuss the Miracle much with his players, so it is unlikely he will play that motivational card today.

At the same time ...

"I'm just really thankful I've got this opportunity," he said. "It's not too often that you get to play in an Olympics and then, 30 years later, you get to go back. To get to put a team together and showcase that in front of the world, it's an amazing opportunity. It's a special time."

The game today will have three other Western Pennsylvania connections:

• Brianne McLaughlin, the Americans' No. 3 goaltender, played four years at Robert Morris University. She is not expected to be in uniform today after playing just eight minutes in the tournament.

• Meghan Agosta, one of Canada's most dynamic forwards at age 23, plays at Mercyhurst College in Erie. Her 14 points, including nine goals, are the most in the tournament. She wears No. 87, by the way.

• Gillian Apps, another Canadian forward, is the daughter of Syl Apps, a standout winger with the Penguins in the 1970s as part of their prolific Century Line with Jean Pronovost and Lowell MacDonald.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at our Kovacevic at the Olympics blog. First Published February 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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