When Team USA took to the ice for its first game of the 2018 Olympics this morning against Slovenia, the record indicated it did so with a roster comprised of 25 players – three goalies, eight defensemen and 14 forwards. But anyone associated with that team will tell you that it will go through these Olympic Games with a 26th member. He won’t score a goal, take a faceoff or block a single shot, but Jim Johannson will be as much a part of the U.S. Olympic team as he was when he played for it in 1988 and 1992.
In fact, the team has a locker stall for Johannson in its dressing room at the Gangneung Hockey Centre, complete with a nameplate. His No. 24 from the ’88 and ’92 Olympic teams are stitched into the sweaters and the players will have ‘JJ’ on their helmets. Johansson died in his sleep at the age of 53 on Jan. 21, leaving an enormous emotional and practical void in USA Hockey, where he was the assistant executive director and GM of the team that will represent USA in Pyeongchang. Johansson’s fingerprints were on almost everything USA Hockey did, from its American Development Model to elite player identification to choosing the Olympic squad.
“The one thing I keep reminding myself is that this is Jimmy’s team from start to finish,” said Team USA coach Tony Granato prior to the team leaving for Pyeongchang. “It always will be because of the work that he put in to bring us all together. The confidence he showed in us through this whole process is exactly what Jimmy has been his whole life – an incredible teammate, an incredible hockey man and an incredible friend to all of us.”
One of the last acts Johannson performed for USA Hockey was to tell the players on this team that they had realized their dreams of making the Olympic team. Johannson talked about how much he enjoyed the calls and how much it meant for those players to represent their country at this point in their careers, a point where for the majority of the players, the NHL had either been a thing of the past or had passed them by. “Losing J.J. is a terrible loss for us,” said defenseman Matt Gilroy. “It was special to know J.J. and what he meant to USA Hockey. He made you really believe in the USA program and I can’t thank him enough for the opportunity to be on this Olympic team.”
It has indeed been a tragic and difficult couple of Olympics for those who have been GM of Team USA. Just 11 days before the Americans took to the ice for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, GM Brian Burke’s son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident. And in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Games in Sochi, GM David Poile was hit by a puck during a morning skate and lost eyesight in one eye and was forced to miss the tournament.
Johannson was much more than just the man who put together American teams for international competition, although he was extremely successful in doing that. During his tenure at USA Hockey, the Americans truly became a world force, winning 34 gold medals in international competition and 64 in all. He was the driving force behind moving the U.S. National Team Development Program from Ann Arbor to Plymouth and was key in launching and implementing the American Development Model that has helped produce the likes of Auston Matthews, Brock Boeser, Clayton Keller and Charlie McAvoy.
And Johannson was legendary in U.S. hockey circles for knowing almost every elite player who was coming up at just about every level. To be sure, Johannson had identified many of the country’s young stars years before most hockey fans and observers had even heard of them. He was an early proponent of USA Hockey adopting the cross-ice hockey model for players eight and under, rationalizing that players got more touches and scoring chances at that level when they played in a more confined space.
His stamp on this team is indelible. Part of the preparation that Johansson established for the team going into Korea was establishing a secure website where players could watch videos that laid out the team’s systems. And if USA does manage to medal for the first time without NHLers since the 1980 Miracle on Ice, it will do so with Johannson close to its heart.
“We’ll have Jimmy with us throughout the whole process,” Granato said. “When we go into our coaches’ meetings and make our decisions, we’ll think of what Jimmy wanted us to do and how he wanted us to do it. His whole thing all along was how proud he was of the players and this team that he put together and how exciting of a product it was going to be. We’ll do everything we can to hold up our end of that promise.”
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