When the U.S. Olympic team hits the ice for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in a little more than three weeks, it will do so with Jim Johannson’s fingerprints all over it. In fact, Jim Johannson, the player, would have been a perfect fit for the team that Jim Johannson, the general manager, put together.
As a college star and player in the minor pros, Johannson was a hardworking and responsible player with enough natural talent to be a difference maker. He never played in the NHL, but he played on teams with some of the greatest players that USA Hockey and other nations have produced. And it was a testament to his dedication that he was bestowed with the Ironman Award in the defunct International League in 1990-91, an award that goes to “the player who has played in every one of his team’s games and displayed outstanding offensive and defensive skills.”
But Johannson, whose sudden death at the age of 53 on Sunday morning shocked the hockey world, truly made his mark as an executive with USA Hockey, helping countless national teams achieve their potential and reach the podium. Under Johannson’s watch as the man effectively responsible for putting American hockey teams together, the U.S. has gone from a darkhorse contender in international hockey to a front-and-center powerhouse and legitimate favorite in almost every event it enters. U.S. teams have won 34 gold medals under Johannson’s leadership and 64 medals overall and if there was a talented American player somewhere, chances are he was on Jim Johannson’s radar.
Johannson will not see as his country continues to add to that medal haul in the future and becomes and even bigger force on the world hockey scene, but his handiwork will live on for years. That’s because he was instrumental in helping USA Hockey launch the American Development Model (ADM), a program that covers hockey players from their first strides to beer league and emphasizes skill development and a love for the game.
Although things are changing, the majority of the best natural athletes in the United States do not gravitate toward hockey. It’s seen by many as an elitist sport that costs far too much to play. Those are the kinds of obstacles Johannson and others in USA Hockey have faced in trying to grow the sport. It’s a lot of work, certainly more than it is in Canada where the game is ingrained in every cranny of its culture.
Perhaps the most significant move the ADM made in the past couple of years was instituting cross-ice hockey for all under-8 players in its system, a model that has since been adopted by Hockey Canada and is facing some opposition in the Toronto area. It’s a concept that is long overdue, giving players a smaller space in which to play, which leads naturally to players getting more touches with the puck and emphasizing a need to make plays in more confined spaces. The logic goes that kids who play golf don’t start from the blue tees, kids in baseball start with T-ball and those starting basketball begin their experience with lower nets. So it’s only logical that the same kind of approach should be applied to hockey.
It’s a great concept that will, in the future, produce even more skilled American players than it already has now. Studies show that cross-ice hockey produces twice as many puck battles, six times the number of shots on goal (which helps develop goalies, too), twice as many pass attempts, five times the number of passes received and twice as many changes in direction per player.
Last year’s rookie of the year, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, started his minor hockey playing cross-ice. This year’s rookie race is rife with Americans in Brock Boeser, Clayton Keller and Charlie McAvoy, all of whom had their introduction to hockey on smaller ice surfaces.
It is not only promoting skill, but it’s keeping more kids involved in the game, as evidenced by the fact that the under-8 age group annually sees the largest jump in membership. These kids are coming and they’re going to keep coming, thanks in part to the vision Jim Johannson and others in USA hockey had.
And that will be Johannson’s hockey legacy. The U.S. Olympic team this year should have no shortage of inspiration when it hits the ice in Korea. If they all play the way Johannson did, they’ll be a very tough out. But Johannson’s legacy will live on in the deluge of talented American hockey players we’re going to see in the future.