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Mark Johnson, and the 'priceless' stories he's heard in 40 years since the Miracle on Ice
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Mark Johnson, and the 'priceless' stories he's heard in 40 years since the Miracle on Ice

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One of the sayings that Mark Johnson is fond of using as coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team is that every game has a story.

With one game, however, that is a dramatic understatement.

Saturday is the 40th anniversary of the United States’ 1980 Olympic hockey triumph over the Soviet Union, a game whose result has produced a shelf full of books, a hastily made TV movie and another Hollywood endeavor that has brought up the current generation of American hockey players.

For as many tales as have been incorporated into those works, however, there’s always more that Johnson and the other members of the Miracle on Ice team are brought into.

The stories that people tell the players about what they were doing when the U.S. beat the Soviets in 1980 and why it meant so much to them have woven their way into the event’s fabric.

“The excitement and the energy as they tell it to you,” Johnson said, “it’s priceless.”

One such story has stuck with Johnson more than others. As he recalls it, a group of people pulled off the interstate under a bridge during a rainstorm to listen to the last minutes of the game.

“The game ends, and complete strangers who are just going wherever they’re going are hugging in the middle of the highway,” Johnson said.

Johnson described it as a link of friendship between two people who don’t know each other. That’s what the Miracle on Ice is, 40 years later.

He’s selective about the stories he tells from those days, especially when the topic is his own involvement as the team’s leading scorer. With a job to do at the helm of a Badgers team that’s chasing a sixth NCAA title under his watch, Johnson declined some media requests to talk about the 1980 Olympics in recent weeks.

But once he gets going, like he did at his weekly news conference Monday, the memories come flowing out:

  • On the expectations the team had entering the Games: “Our biggest goal was to try to get into the medal round and make sure we didn’t embarrass ourselves in front of our home country.”
  • On watching the 4-3 victory over the Soviets again at the same time the rest of the country got to see it: “A lot of us, our families were staying at the top of the hill in Lake Placid at a Holiday Inn at that time. Most of us made our way up the long hill. We got up there, watched the game on tape delay and actually pinched ourselves because we won again. We didn’t know if we were having a dream the first time around and we ended up beating the Russians.”
  • On the 2-1 deficit against Finland en route to a 4-2 victory that wrapped up the gold medal: “As we sat in the locker room between the second and third period of that Finland game, you could just sense the calmness of all the junk and all the crap and all the things we endured over that six-month period, there was no way a group of Finns was going to beat us. And so as we walked onto the ice in the third period, I think for a lot of us, we knew we were going to win the game. We just didn’t know how the script was going to go.”
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  • On what brought the U.S. team together: “The friendships that were developed and the family atmosphere that group was able to create are probably the biggest reason that we gave ourselves a chance to win at the end.”

Just as it’s an understatement to say that the Miracle on Ice produced a few stories, it’s selling it short to say that the 1980 Winter Olympics were big for Madison.

While Johnson and fellow Madison native and UW product Bob Suter were part of a team that gained legendary status, speedskater Eric Heiden won a then-unprecedented five gold medals.

Heiden’s sister, Beth, won bronze in the 3,000 meters as part of a six-person speedskating contingent from Madison that also included Mary and Sarah Docter, Dan Immerfall and Peter Mueller.

A gathering of most of the players from the 1980 hockey team is taking place in Las Vegas this weekend. Johnson was scheduled to attend, but he went in a different direction to remain behind the bench with the Badgers at Minnesota-Duluth.

“My main focus is to get the group ready to play,” he said.

If the Olympics become a topic of discussion, it probably won’t be by Johnson’s choice. Badgers senior captain Mekenzie Steffen said the coach has never brought up his two goals against the Soviet Union, his game-clinching, short-handed score against Finland or anything else involving his experience in Lake Placid during her four years with UW.

“I wish he would brag about himself, but he doesn’t,” Steffen said. “We would love to hear about it.”


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