Minnesota will not only host the sixth-ranked women’s hockey team in the country when the Wisconsin Badgers come to town Friday night, they will welcome a hockey legend.
Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson will forever be remembered for his role on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that defeated the Soviet Union in the famous “Miracle On Ice” game en route to a gold medal.
He recorded a team-high 11 points in the tournament, including two goals in the improbable 4-3 victory over the Russians.
The Minneapolis native is more concerned with building a new hockey legacy at Wisconsin than with discussing his Olympic feats.
Johnson, 45, is in his first year as the head coach of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team after spending six years as an assistant with the men’s program.
He’s trying to build a solid foundation for a program that has had three different head coaches in its four-year existence.
“We are still in the early stages, and we try to make progress in small steps,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s words and his challenges as a coach are indicative of most women’s collegiate hockey programs across the country.
In general, women’s hockey teams have struggled to gain recognition and exposure, often taking a back seat to their male counterparts.
Minnesota’s women’s hockey team drew an average attendance of 972 people to home games last year. While that mark was the highest in the nation among women’s teams, it’s not even one-tenth of the 10,032 people Minnesota’s men’s team attract on average to Mariucci Arena.
“We’ve benefited a great deal from Gophers men’s hockey,” Minnesota women’s coach Laura Halldorson said. “In a way, we can use the men as a model because they’ve had such great success.”
Still, it’s difficult for a women’s team such as Minnesota’s to garner attention with a storied men’s program just next door.
Wisconsin athletics director Pat Richter said he is hopeful that the appointment of Johnson as head coach will bring instant recognition to their program and more people through the turnstiles.
But Halldorson has mixed emotions about the appointment of men’s assistants to head coaching positions in the women’s ranks.
“I think it’s great if these are former men’s hockey coaches coming in to our sport if they’re doing it for the right reasons,” Halldorson said. “What I don’t want to see is coaches of men’s hockey hit a dead end and say, ‘They’re paying women’s coaches pretty well, so I’m going to make that change.’ “
Halldorson did say, however, that she thought Mark Johnson would be a positive for the league and for the sport.
An additional concern is that some men may be interested in coaching women solely for the chance to get noticed before moving on to more glamorous positions.
Richter, though, believes that argument is insignificant.
“I’ve always said that’s a moot point,” Richter said. “If they have the opportunity to go somewhere else because of what they’ve done, then we’re obviously better off for it.”