Heavy Hearts

U.S. Men Hit The Ice Thinking About Their Friend And Fallen Colleague

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – There’s an empty stall inside the U.S. locker room at the Gangneung Hockey Centre, a solemn tribute to the man whose vision was the catalyst that brought together these 25 players and coaching staff. In it sits a blue jersey draped over a chair, with the name Johannson hovering above the over-sized number 18.


As Bobby Butler prepared for the first practice with the U.S. Men’s Team, he quietly sat across the way thinking back to the first time he met Jim Johannson and how it changed his life. 


“I was just looking at it and thinking about the first time I met him at the [2013] World Championships and all the memories,” said the Marlborough, Mass., native. “Just looking at that stall, I think it gives us much more motivation.”


And so it is, with heavy hearts and a fierce determination to show the world the same traits that Johannson saw in each of them, that the U.S. squad began its quest to honor their fallen friend during a spirited 75-minute practice.


“Jimmy did everything to put this thing together. This is his project,” said head coach Tony Granato, who was Johannson’s long-time friend and teammate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team. “Now it’s our job to recognize those wishes and carry them out in the best interest of our program and the best interest of Jimmy’s legacy.”


To those who knew him, that legacy was about giving more American players the opportunity to wear the red, white and blue on the international stage. And no stage is bigger than the Olympics.


Many of those selected were unknown or long forgotten to all but the most strident hockey fans. Some critics scoffed when the roster was released. Others quickly dismissed any chance of a U.S. medal. But Johannson, who was a walking Wikipedia of American hockey talent, would cast a wry smile and continue tackling the myriad of issues that come with preparing for an international tournament.


“JJ always phrased it as the second lease on life or the second lease on hockey,” said Brian O’Neill, who was plucked from Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League. “I think we’re all re-energized by that. A lot of us have been in Europe and our careers have been up and down. 


“We’ve faced some lows and we’ve faced some highs, and this is definitely the biggest high for a lot of us. We’ve been given an opportunity that we never expected and we’re going to enjoy it and relish the opportunity.”


It’s a story shared by his teammates and the entire coaching staff. As Johannson said in the days leading up to the roster announcement at the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, there would be 25 great stories to tell about the individuals wearing the red, white and blue at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. And now there is only one sad and somber story for everyone involved with this team.


“It was just disbelief [to hear the news] because he just seemed like such a healthy guy. For some reason bad things happen to great people,” said fellow Minnesotan Ryan Stoa, who has known Johannson since his days at the National Team Development Program. 


“We definitely have him in our thoughts with the t-shirts we wear and the stall in the locker room. It makes me happy to see that they are remembering him in that way. To do that for him, especially when it was his team that he put together, was really something. We definitely want to make him proud.”


Coming together under such a pall has been a challenge for Granato and the rest of the coaching staff. Over the ensuing months, he and Johannson spoke every day, whether by telephone or text or email, about potential players and the coaching staff that was being assembled. And then one day it was a different type of call that came. The kind that no one wants to receive.


“Since he’s been gone I’ve been waiting for that call every day to talk about whatever it might be: who we are going to play, how are we going to play, what time should we do this,” Granato said. “There’s a vacancy that won’t be replaced.”


Still, life goes on, and for this team the healing process continued on Thursday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena, where Granato addressed the team. His message was short and to the point, and came straight from the heart.


“The reason we’re all in this room is the person who’s not here with us and so we got through that and the fact that there’s plenty of ways that we’ll honor him with how we act and how we play,” he said.


“All these players got the same phone call I did.  Jimmy was on the other end of all those phone calls because he believed in us for what we bring to the team, and to USA Hockey. We should be awfully grateful for that and we need to be ready to do whatever we can to be ready to represent us in the way he thought we would.”


Everyone involved with Team USA knows that the best way to honor the man called “Mr. USA Hockey” is to band together and win a gold medal.


As former USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said in the hours after the news of Johannson’s passing began to circulate through the hockey world in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, “If there was ever a ‘win one for the Gipper’ type moment, this is it.”


And everyone that came here in South Korea thanks to Jim Johannson’s vision is determined to make that happen.

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