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John Johannson reflects on his brother, Jim

02/23/2018, 7:15am MST
By John Johannson

John and Jim Johannson were brothers in every sense of the word. Both grew up playing hockey in Rochester, Minnesota. Both went on to play four years at the University of Wisconsin. John was a member of the 1981 U.S. National Junior Team. Jim represented Team USA in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics before turning pro and eventually becoming general manager of USA Hockey.

John sat down with The USA Hockey Foundation to share his memories of Jim and what he meant to friends, family and the hockey community.

The USA Hockey Foundation: What area of hockey was Jimmy most passionate about?

John Johannson: This could have several answers and could focus on many different themes. He loved the international competition. Hockey is unique amongst the major sports in that it has frequent international competitions. Small population countries like Sweden and Finland are world powers. Countries with incredible history and political turmoil view hockey as their national sport, such as Russia and Czech Republic. He loved taking teams, especially younger players, to these historically significant countries. They were there for hockey but left with much more. 

I would also suggest that Jimmy had a deep passion for players that were in the 17- to 19-year-old age group. The fact that this pool of players has changed so dramatically over the last 20 years is both daunting, as well as full of opportunity. Historically, the pool of elite players was based in Minnesota, Michigan and the Boston area. Over the last two decades, the elite player base has truly become nationwide. Sometimes it could prove challenging to assess a player that’s in Florida or California with a player based in Michigan. The depth of competition in different areas can vary dramatically. However, as we have seen recently, there is a trend for the elite player to come from previously unexpected programs. I think Jimmy loved getting these players together for competition and assessment.

Jimmy also knew the elite player in this age group was at an important time in their development. They need guidance, encouragement, constructive criticism and opportunity. There is a careful process in how he would handle the elite player that has known nothing but success and then quickly finds out that there are other players that are just as good or even better. USA Hockey has truly created a platform with their programs, and in particular at the National Team Development Program, that allows these unique and talented athletes to find and achieve their high-water level.

I also think Jimmy would say he was proud that these players who got involved with USA Hockey when they were young, grew into professional players that have an appreciation for and allegiance to USA Hockey in their later years. I know that Jimmy was incredibly proud of Scott Monaghan, the group at NTDP, and the strength of that program. And I know that Jimmy thought it was only getting better still.

The USA Hockey Foundation: Is there a prominent phrase or quote that JJ used?

Johannson: Pat Kelleher and I reminisced just yesterday how Jimmy always said that you will face adversity in every tournament you play in. Just expect it. It’s all about how you handle it and use it for motivation. The disappointing loss to Slovenia in the first game of the Olympics certainly qualified as adversity. I think it was a particularly calming presence to the World Junior teams. You can imagine the disappointment of an early tournament loss for a collection of high-performing 18- and 19-year-olds at the World Junior tournament. Jimmy would take it in stride and turn the focus to the next game and how the path is still possible to the final goal. Expect adversity. 

He also had a phrase that he learned from his dear friend and former German teammate, Markus Weiss. In the translation from German to English, Markus would not simply say “yes.” He would say “100 percent.” Jimmy would frequently say “100 percent” rather than “yes.” He usually twisted in the German accent as he said it. It brought a level of commitment and reassurance to every answer. And I think we can all say that Jimmy lived and worked everything to “100 percent” – and, yes, that is more than just a simple “yes.”

The USA Hockey Foundation: What are some stories of Jim that really stand out?

Johannson: A few years ago, Jimmy called Chris Chelios to ask him to coach the Deutschland Cup team, which plays an international tournament in Germany in November every other year. Chris was excited to coach, and he had been retired from playing for two or three years. They met in New York to get on the flight to Germany, and when they were checking their luggage, Chris had brought his entire hockey bag with all his gear, and six sticks taped together. Jimmy asked what that was all about, and Chris said, “Well, in case you need a player.” Jimmy said, “No Chris, you are coaching.” Chris said, “What about if someone gets hurt.” Jimmy said, “You are the coach.” Chris says, “What if it’s a big game and we need to win.” Jimmy said very emphatically, “Chris, you are coaching!” What Jimmy loved about it was the passion of Chris Chelios. He just wanted to wear the USA jersey one more time. They laughed about it afterwards and I laughed with Chris about it also. Eventually, Chris got the message that he was only supposed to coach. But that passion to wear the jersey is irreplaceable. 

Jimmy really loved Phil Housley. In the era when it was (understandably) hard to get NHL players to say yes to a request to go play for three weeks in May at the IIHF Men’s World Championship, after a long and grueling NHL season, Jimmy always said that Phil Housley would quickly skip past the yes-or-no answer. Jimmy said Phil would just ask “What time do I leave?” He was a recognized star and great player that posted every time they asked him to play (Editor’s Note: Housley played in six IIHF Men’s World Championships for Team USA: 1982, 1986, 1989, 2000, 2001, 2003. His 46 games played are the fourth-most of any American player.). I can assure you that Jimmy was beyond proud when Phil went from being a high school coach in Minnesota to being the coach of U.S. National Junior Team that won the gold medal in Russia (in 2013). And then most appropriately, his NHL coaching career took off – first in Nashville, and now as head coach in Buffalo. Phil is the kind of guy that deserves every bit of success – and I think we all know that Jimmy would celebrate with everyone at USA Hockey as Phil’s success continues.

Personally, I’ve had several players mention to me that they look back and realize how much they appreciated the fact that Jimmy did not hold a grudge. When a player would decline going to the World Championship, or was not entirely supportive of the USA Hockey mission, Jimmy did not get upset at them, did not cross their name off the list, and did not stir the situation into an acrimonious relationship. I truly think Jimmy understood the grind and pressure that some of these players were under with their current team/career. He was not afraid to invite that player again, do a favor for them later, or help them later in their career when asked. That was a wonderful personality trait of Jimmy. Most of us, probably including me, would take the matter personally. Jimmy viewed it as a step that he had to get over and he would not let previous actions influence his ability to put the best possible team together for any tournament.

The USA Hockey Foundation: What would JJ want players to take away from their hockey experiences?

Johannson: I fondly recall Jimmy discussing with me over the summer 15-plus years ago the challenges with getting players to commit to play in the World Championship, and also, in their early years with the NTDP, when players would frequently turn down the invite to the program, and the program was not widely accepted throughout the country yet. Frankly, the NTDP was more criticized than welcomed in its early years. Rather than dwell on these challenges and argue whether they were based on merit, Jimmy clearly had a goal to change the paradigm through positive steps. He clearly stated that his goal was to make the USA Hockey experience as rewarding and meaningful as possible for every player, family and staff member.

Personally, I hope we all look back and realize this is where he had his greatest impact. He truly believed that when any player – be they young or old, male or female, amateur or professional – pulled the USA jersey over their head, that it should be special. That moment needed to be special for the team and staff, and perhaps more importantly, for the player. If the player did not pause for a moment, and did not feel a tingle as they pull the jersey over their head, then we still have work to do. There should be no greater moment of pride than to play for your country. I can assure you that those were Jimmy’s most treasured moments (and me, too!).

All the little things that Jimmy did, and all the little programs the team at USA Hockey started, contributed to the sense of pride to wear the jersey. The internally produced “national” newspaper that went under the players’ hotel door at every tournament contributed to the sense of pride and camaraderie. The thoughtful and timely communication with players and family during the off months contributed to the sense of pride – the summer camps and motivational messages. The national military heroes who reminded these players of the gravity of wearing a jersey with the letters USA emblazoned on the front. The pride and joy to tell a player that he’s on the World Junior team or the Olympic team contributed to this, as well as the joyful calls the players then placed to their parents and family. The “Phone-a-Friend” program that Jimmy and Bob Motzko started just recently is perhaps the culmination of all these little steps from the past. Jimmy thought if you could instill appreciation into the player, then you would undoubtedly enhance the sense of pride before you pull the jersey over the head. Expressing appreciation to a former coach, instructor or family friend that had a large impact on the player’s career resulted in priceless emotional moments for both the player and the recipient of these treasured phone calls of appreciation. I do think that the typical player is today very proud to put the USA jersey over their heads. And it’s only going to be even more meaningful going forward. 

If the goal to have every American player dreaming about pulling on a USA jersey is the only standard for the person that takes over for Jimmy in the future, then I think the program will be in great hands and will only get better. There is so much more for the organization to achieve in the future.

When we were playing in a golf event last summer, Jimmy told me that one thing he was thinking about was coming up with a program whereby each player in these significant international tournaments (Olympics, World Juniors, World Championships) would be able to not only keep their game-worn jerseys, but also be given an additional team jersey with their name and number on it that they could then send, along with a personal note, to a coach, trainer, teacher or other person that positively impacted their life as an appreciation and recognition of their contribution. He was even thinking about it to the extent that he mentioned trying to come up with some type of real nice box or packaging that had the USA Hockey logo on it so the jersey didn’t just show up in a plastic bag. It was just another step in the effort to turn the emotion of appreciation into pride when pulling that jersey over your head.

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