Olympics: He helped throttle the Soviets in 1980, now he’s back
EDITOR’S NOTE: BPSports editor Tim Ellsworth is in Vancouver for Baptist Press’ coverage of the Winter Olympics.
VANCOUVER (BP)—Thirty years later, Mark Johnson still wonders at times whether it really happened.
Was he really a part of what is widely considered the greatest moment in U.S. Winter Olympics history? Did he really score two goals for the U.S. hockey team against the juggernaut Soviets in the semifinals at Lake Placid in 1980 en route to a stunning 4-3 victory? Did he really win a gold medal when Team USA beat Finland in the finals, capping an unlikely run that captivated an entire nation?
“You’re not quite sure you still believe it, even though it’s been 30 years,” Johnson said. “Generally when the thought of it pops in your head, or you see a highlight or video, it usually brings a smile to your face and makes you feel good that you were involved in something that obviously was so special to so many people.”
This year in Vancouver, Johnson returns to the Olympics for the first time since those magical moments— this time, as the head coach of the U.S. women’s hockey team.
“It’s a different role,” Johnson said. “It’s much more difficult and challenging to be a coach of one of these teams than a player.”
Johnson, who was named to the position about a year ago, has taken a sabbatical from his seven-year stint as women’s hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin. The women have been practicing, training, traveling and playing exhibition games since Aug. 18, and Johnson said he’s ready for the competition in Vancouver’s Winter Olympics.
“Expectations are high within our group,” Johnson said. “We’re taking a run at the gold medal. Everybody within our locker room and our support staff knows and understands the expectations.”
After his history-making performance in the 1980 Olympics, Johnson spent 11 years in the NHL with Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Hartford, St. Louis and New Jersey. It was during his time with the New Jersey Devils in the mid-1980s when Johnson’s life took a new direction. He had been married for a few years by this point and had a couple of kids.
“I sort of came to the point in my life where I was looking for some answers and had some questions,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his wife, Leslie, began attending an Athletes in Action Bible study with a group of players in the New York area. After a period of three or four months of regular attendance, Johnson said he and Leslie both came to the point where their questions had been answered, and they placed their faith in Christ.
“It’s been a long, wonderful journey since that point,” he said.
That’s not to say his life has always been perfect or rosy. But his faith in Christ has provided what he calls a “balancing point” that has kept him from getting too excited when things are going well, or too depressed when life takes a turn for the worse.
“If you find that balancing point—that I find with my relationship with the Lord—He’s able to keep me even, whether things are going really well or things aren’t going well,” Johnson said.
His commitment to Christ also has a considerable influence on who he is as a man, a husband, a father and a hockey coach. His hope is that his players see the evidence of that commitment in his life—through his day-to-day consistency and through the values and morals he holds in high esteem and tries to live out.
“I think as a coach and as a leader, if you’re able to do that, it certainly sends a strong message,” Johnson said. “You have to walk the talk. I think that is something that speaks a lot louder than words do.”