"It’s such a tough journey to get here … You’re here now and you have to enjoy it because you’re not guaranteed it again."

A team photo of the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team and their NCAA Championship trophy from last night’s “Welcome Home” party.

I missed it because I was in Stevens Point coaching my former college team, but the newspapers here covered it. The caption for this photo reads “Members of the UW women’s hockey team hold high the NCAA championship plaque at a reception at the Kohl Center on Monday evening that drew about 1,000 fans.”

I’m also including an inspiring article below on the women’s coach, one of my former bosses if you will, Mark Johnson, and the UW men’s coach, Mike Eaves.

I am so very happy for these players. I spent three years working in the athletic department and my final year, I spent almost as much time working with the women’s hockey team as I do on rugby now. It’s funny to me that I chose to walk away from staying on in the department, and most likely working with one of the hockey teams, to find a different job that gave me more free time … to play rugby and spend more time with my friends and family. Even now though, I’m not disappointed in my decisions, despite the fact that I won’t get my very own NCAA championship ring.

Go Badgers! I am so very proud to be a Wisconsin fan.

Mike Lucas: For Johnson and Eaves, a quiet satisfaction
By Mike Lucas
University of Wisconsin women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson didn’t want the moment to pass without proper respect and introspection. So he took the time to reflect on what was happening before sending his team out to play Minnesota for the national championship Sunday at Mariucci Arena. “I went out before warmups,” he said, “and sat on the bench by myself.”

Alone with his thoughts. “I started looking up in one corner of the rink,” Johnson said, “knowing that the night before I had sent my kids up there. I told them, ‘Go find Grandpa.'”

Grandpa Johnson. The Hawk. Badger Bob. In the early ’50s, Bob Johnson, a Minneapolis native, played hockey for the Gophers and legendary coach John Mariucci, after whom the arena was named. Johnson went on to become the architect of Badger hockey, selling the sport to a hungry fan base in Madison that was desperately looking for something to support.

Bob Johnson, in turn, created his own legend and legacy, which included three national championships at Wisconsin. “My kids saw the pictures of Grandpa on some of those Gopher teams,” Mark Johnson said. “And while I was sitting on the bench, looking up at the one corner of the rink, I was thinking about what they might have been thinking.”

Later, during the player introductions and the playing of the national anthem, Johnson stood pensively behind the Wisconsin bench and let his eyes roam again. “I just glanced over the crowd,” he said. “I wanted to take it all in. I wanted to savor it. As a team, this is what you work for.”

For those four or five minutes — before the puck was dropped Sunday at center ice between the Badgers and the Gophers — the 48-year-old Johnson was alone, again, alone with his thoughts. “It’s such a tough journey to get here,” he was thinking to himself. “You’re here now and you have to enjoy it because you’re not guaranteed it again.”

As the final seconds ticked off on Wisconsin’s convincing 3-0 victory over Minnesota — and the school’s first NCAA championship in women’s hockey — a stoic Mark Johnson turned and shook hands with his assistant coach, Tracey Cornell. Johnson showed little or no emotion. Why?

“That’s the difference between being a player and a coach,” said Johnson, a former UW All-American who starred on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and played 11 seasons in the National Hockey League. “For a player, the moment is exciting because you know within seconds of the game ending you’re going to get to touch the trophy that you’ve been working so hard for.

“As a coach, you’re putting the puzzle together. And there are some decisions that you make along the way that you’re not sure are going to work until the end. And, then, when it happens, when you win, it becomes surreal. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.'”

Johnson recalled how his Olympic coach, Herb Brooks, handled the moment — the shining moment when the Americans shocked the world by upsetting the Soviet Union in Lake Placid. “Herbie just turned and walked away,” Johnson said. “As coaches, we draw the pictures and, then, we let the players go out and enjoy the moment. That’s their time, that’s their moment.”

Johnson didn’t let this particular moment Sunday escape without reflection. “There were a lot of things going through my mind during those final seconds,” he confided. “I was thinking what my dad went through as a coach and how he won championships. I was thinking about what my dad would be doing now.”

Bob Johnson died of brain cancer in November of 1991 — just six months after coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship. And, now, as Mark Johnson was getting ready to celebrate his first title as a coach, he was remembering how his dad had hoisted the Cup after an 8-0 victory over the Minnesota North Stars in Game 6 at the old Met (which is now the site of the Mall of America).

Mark Johnson also remembered the energy he had expended while training with the Olympic team in Bloomington. He remembered the painful skating drills, the Herbies, that Herb Brooks put the team through. And he thought about his own UW players with pride because of what they had overcome and accomplished. “A lot of things were going through my mind,” Johnson repeated. “I was taking it all in.”

On the bus ride back to Madison that night — just outside of Wisconsin Dells — Mark Johnson got a call on his cell phone from his wife, Leslie, who informed him that the men’s team had beaten Cornell on Jack Skille’s goal in the third overtime. Mark Johnson called and left a congratulatory message on Mike Eaves’ cell.

As the bus journey continued, Mark Johnson stared out the window and thought to himself, “It’s a great day to be a Badger hockey fan.”

****

There was a close-up camera shot of Eaves standing behind the UW bench and he was wearing a whimsical look on his face as the overtime marathon with Cornell progressed Sunday during the NCAA Midwest Regional final at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon. His demeanor seemed out of place given the circumstances of the moment. After all, the tension on the ice was mounting with each scoreless shift.

“The longer the game went on, the more I just kind of stepped back out of being in the role of a coach and I enjoyed it a little bit,” Eaves conceded Monday. “I was looking at the people (in the arena), and I was watching our kids and what they were going through. As a coach, our control is very limited at that time. We always say it’s the players who ultimately win the game.

“So I was just trying to monitor the players, trying to get a gut feeling, trying to mix the lines up a little bit to find a spark. That whimsical look you were talking about? That was me enjoying the moment, to be real honest with you. And that speaks a little bit to the stage where I’m at in my life. Being around the game for a long time — coaching for almost 20 years now — you just need to step back and share these moments with the kids.”

During the overtime intermissions, Eaves talked to his players about some of the greatest overtime goals they had ever seen. Or heard about. Eaves brought up Pat LaFontaine’s 35-foot spin-around shot that got past a screened Bob Mason and gave the New York Islanders a 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals in a 1987 NHL playoff game that lasted four overtimes (128 minutes, 47 seconds).

Eaves also brought up Bobby Nystrom’s goal at 7:11 of overtime — on a beautiful assist from John Tonelli — that beat Philadelphia’s Pete Peeters and resulted in the Islanders’ first Stanley Cup championship in 1980. Nystrom was the epitome of grit. “He was a tough guy and that was my favorite overtime winner,” said Eaves, making sure his players were reading his mind. “That’s an indirect way of telling them what they need to do — it’s more about the will than the skill.”

There was another overtime that crossed his mind. Boston College advanced to the 2004 Frozen Four by edging Michigan 3-2 on Ben Eaves’ goal. Eaves scored on a rebound off a Patrick Eaves shot. Ben and Patrick are the sons of Mike and Beth Eaves. And because of leg cramps — similar to what the UW’s Robbie Earl encountered Sunday — Ben Eaves missed three shifts before stepping back on to the ice for the game-winner.

Will over skill.

“You always talk about destiny,” Mike Eaves was saying now. “Is destiny something you forge? Or is it something that happens? I think it’s a little bit of both. That’s what Forrest Gump talks about. And I think it’s a little bit of both. Destiny is preparation meeting opportunity. But there’s always that X-factor you can’t control. And maybe understanding that to a degree now as a head coach allows you to step back and enjoy the moment a little bit more.”

All of which added up to a great day for hockey.

For Eaves and Johnson.

That men’s game on Sunday night was unreal! There was so much tension and so many close shots that when Wisconsin finally did score, it was just crazy.

This article also made me remember that I have even held the 1980 men’s hockey olympic gold medal during a staff christmas party. I just remember thinking it’s just a large piece of jewelry, but it symbolizes so very much. And Coach, I think, thought the same thing … it’s just a medal. He’s a very humble guy. I really enjoyed working for him, his staff and the whole team.

I’ll be sure to include some blogginess when I work the men’s NCAA Frozen Four next week, for any of you rugby gals that are hockey fans. How fantastic would it be to have both the men’s and women’s NCAA champions?

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