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The question was innocuous and designed to end an interview session on a bright note. But Joel Johnson's answer was revealing.

At the completion of a December news conference before Team USA's women's hockey exhibition game against Canada — a game that would be canceled because of COVID-19's spread — Johnson was asked what was on his Christmas wish list.

"A nap," he replied as folks in the room chuckled.

Johnson was in a daily routine then of burning both ends and the middle of his candle. He accepted a challenging task last year, a task that won't be completed until he returns next month from the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

In June, Johnson was named head coach of the St. Thomas women's hockey team just before its first season as a Division I program. In July, he was named head coach of the USA women's hockey team. One hockey coach, two hockey programs.

Why would he do this to himself? Those who know him speak of his character, conviction, integrity, communication skills and egoless desire to develop players and people. St. Thomas assistant coach Bethany Brausen simply calls him "Captain America."

"He doesn't like that very much," Brausen said with a laugh. "We also tried 'King Joel' out for size. He really doesn't like that. We like to poke fun at him but, at the end of the day, there's a ton of respect there."

The National Sports Center in Blaine where Team USA trains and the St. Thomas ice arena where the Tommies practice are 27.2 miles apart. Johnson knows the drive well. He frequently was on hand for Team USA practices and meetings in the morning in Blaine before grabbing a bite to eat, then heading for Tommies practices or games in the afternoon or evening.

"Sometimes lunch is at the Kwik Trip," he said.

“Team USA brings this element where I can see the past and the drive and the excellence and the pursuit of something greater than themselves. Then I switch gears and drive a half-hour away and see the same passion, the same drive — but I see a different experience.”
Joel Johnson

Brausen and Marty Sertich, the other Tommies assistant, have received texts from Johnson before sunrise and well after sunset regarding the team. If Team USA duties keep him away from Tommies games, he tries to watch the games online and messages his thoughts and suggestions. Johnson trusts his coaches to communicate with the athletic department, handle recruiting, compliance and more while he leads Team USA in its quest to defend its 2018 gold medal.

Johnson is wearing two hats, a challenge that sometimes requires a quick change of attire.

"He got to the rink and he was changing in the parking lot to put his dress clothes on," Sertich said, recalling one of Johnson's busier days, "and he basically walked in the door and gave an awesome pregame speech and I was just like, 'Wow.'"

'All in' times two

Johnson jokes that his days are long, but the 47-year-old hockey lifer doesn't show signs of fatigue or stress.

"When he's with us, he's all in," USA forward Kendall Coyne Schofield said. "We'll ask him how's it going, and it's really impressive what he's been able to do. I'm sure his players are appreciative at St. Thomas as we are here, being able to balance both teams."

It's been a long season for the Tommies, who are 4-17-1 heading into a weekend series against Bemidji State. Yet practice remains spirited, with or without Johnson. Brausen and Sertich are used to running things when Johnson isn't around, to the point where Johnson would show up for practice and take on a supporting role, moving pucks around and taking orders from his coaches as they deliver messages and strategy.

Team USA coach Joel Johnson worked with one of his stars, Amanda Kessel, recently at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
Team USA coach Joel Johnson worked with one of his stars, Amanda Kessel, recently at the National Sports Center in Blaine.

David Joles, Star Tribune

"I love telling people that, like, my coach is also the Olympic coach." Tommies forward Anna Solheim said. "It's been super exciting. I know it's such a great opportunity for him and he's deserving of it. So we're super lucky when he is here and able to practice with us and then always cheering on Team USA and him when he's unable to be with us."

The dual roles have been challenging. Teaching hockey has not. Johnson applies the same principles and concepts to the USA team as he does the Tommies. He has caught himself making the same speeches to both teams.

Johnson is managing to share moments this season with both squads, and share them between the two teams. He was coaching a Tommies game early in the season when he was so moved by the energy the team showed on the bench that he pulled out his phone to record a video of it. The next day, he showed it to the national team.

"The best part of my day is when I get to the ice to be with the players from each team," he said. "And that's what keeps me staying and that's what keeps me coming back the next day.

"Team USA brings this element where I can see the past and the drive and the excellence and the pursuit of something greater than themselves. Then I switch gears and drive a half-hour away and see the same passion, the same drive — but I see a different experience, a college athletic experience of personal development. A whole-person approach to what we are doing, a comprehensive excellence. And that motivates me in a different context."

More hockey than time

These dual roles and dual experiences have made the life of this coach even more transient. He's not been able to spend as much time with his wife, Shannon, and children Megan, 19, and Jacob, 17, this season.

This is all Johnson's fault. His career has made him appealing to both programs. He was an assistant coach for the Gophers women's team from 1999 to 2004, then spent six seasons as the Bethel men's coach before returning to the U as women's associate head coach for 11 seasons. Nationally, he's coached the Under-18 women's national team and the Under-22 women's select team, and he's been an assistant on the women's national team.

This double-dipping lasted several months until recently turning full-time for Team USA. With the Beijing Games fast approaching, it became the greater priority. Still, the days are long and the demands on his time high. Johnson called his wife one day recently to let her know he would be home in an hour, only for Captain America to arrive home four hours later.

“I love telling people that, like, my coach is also the Olympic coach.It's been super exciting. ”
Anna Solheim, St. Thomas player

More than once, Shannon Johnson has looked out the window of their home in White Bear Lake to see her husband's car approaching, only for Coach to take another hour on the phone with a player, an assistant or USA Hockey official. He might circle the block a few times or sit in the garage to complete these conversations.

But the couple knew what the dual roles would entail and they have been prepared.

"It's been a whirlwind," said Shannon Johnson, a former college athlete and current middle school teacher. "We're excited to be at this point where they can see the end in sight for all of their preparation for the Olympics.

"We have been on the same page all the way through, finding ways to communicate about daily stuff and having this vision of seeing it all come together is pretty neat."

The pandemic has been a complicating factor all along, especially recently as Team USA dealt with COVID issues that forced Johnson to isolate himself from his family. Two weeks ago, Johnson was staying at their cabin in western Wisconsin and commuting to Blaine. Last week, he moved into a hotel near Blaine.

"It's been a little bit of what I thought it would look like," Johnson said. "When you add the pandemic in, it has made a mess of it. To be candid, there have been some lonely days. There have been tough days. The reason I think it has been OK has been because of the group I have around me at home, first, then the group at Team USA and the group at St. Thomas."

The goal: gold

Team USA and Canada are clear gold medal favorites in the women's hockey competition, which begins next week. The teams played a series of exhibition games late last year that only stoked the heated rivalry. The Beijing Games is where the ultimate score will be settled.

Johnson described this Olympics experience as spending four months to get ready for two weeks of competition that lead to two final hours. And after that final Team USA game, his time as the leader of two programs will come to an end. When it's time to hang up his shield, Johnson hopes there will be a gold medal with it.

"My favorite thing in all of sports is the picture of gloves and sticks on the ice," he said. "No one knows whose gloves are which or which stick is where or whose helmet is where. It just means that you have just won. And you have just thrown everything off in celebration.

"I can't wait to do that with Team USA and bring the gold medal back."