U.S. names Olympic coaches
by Lucas Aykroyd|28 JUL 2021
Mike Sullivan coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to two Stanley Cups.
photo: Rusty Barton / HHOF Images
USA Hockey officially named Mike Sullivan the head coach of its Olympic men’s team and Joel Johnson the head coach of its Olympic women’s team on Wednesday. It’s the first time in these roles for both men. The 2022 Olympic men’s and women’s hockey tournaments will take place in Beijing, China in February.

“Definitely the expectation is to win gold if you look at the player pool that we have in the United States today,” said Sullivan, the two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins (2016, 2017). “For me, it’s as deep as it’s ever been. And I think that’s a bold statement. My generation had some terrific American-born players that built such a strong legacy, like Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk, Billy Guerin, Tony Amonte, and Jeremy Roenick. I think this new wave of young American players right now are every bit as talented.”

The American men are looking to win their first Olympic gold medal since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid and third of all time. They also triumphed on home ice in Squaw Valley in 1960. The U.S., which finished seventh at the 2018 Olympics, owns two silver medals (2002, 2010) in the new millennium. Now the hope is that they can top the podium with stars like Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, and John Carlson, although the final composition of the roster remains to be seen.
Sullivan, 53, is well-versed in international competition. He served as an assistant coach under Peter Laviolette at the 2006 Olympics (eighth place), the head coach at the 2007 IIHF World Championship (fifth place), and an assistant coach under John Tortorella at both the 2008 Worlds (sixth place) and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey (seventh place).

Reminiscing about his 2006 time in Torino, Sullivan said: “It’s the pinnacle of sports. One of the greatest experiences, I found, was having the ability to live in the Olympic Village with all the other athletes. Just being able to eat lunch in the cafeteria next to athletes from other sports and sharing each other’s experiences, you end up meeting people and rooting for them. There’s a camaraderie with all the other athletes that represent your nation.”

As a hard-working defensive forward, Sullivan also played in two IIHF tournaments. He had two assists for the 1988 World Junior team in Moscow and a goal and two assists for the 1997 Worlds team in Finland. In the NHL, Sullivan totalled 136 points in 709 games for four clubs.

The native of Marshfield, Massachusetts came full circle on Monday at an alumni hockey golf tournament at Boston University, where he played four years, including captaining the 1989-90 squad. Sullivan wished he could have disclosed the news of his upcoming appointment as Olympic coach to some of his boyhood idols.

“I happened to run into Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, and Dave Silk, three guys that played on that Olympic team in 1980,” said Sullivan. “Three guys that I looked up to as a child. So I just couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. I wanted to share it with them at that time, but for obvious reasons I didn’t. Still, obviously that team had such a huge impact and was such a big inspiration for me.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. women are aiming to repeat as Olympic champions after ending a 20-year drought in PyeongChang in 2018. The Americans won the inaugural women’s tournament in Nagano in 1998, followed by three Olympic silver medals (2002, 2010, 2014) and one bronze medal (2006). Canada’s archrivals have captured five straight IIHF Women’s World Championship gold medals (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019). At the Women’s Worlds, they have never failed to win either gold or silver in 19 tries since the tournament debuted in Ottawa in 1990.
USA's head coach Joel Johnson speaks to his team after defeating Canada during gold medal game action at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Needless to say, this all sets the bar high for Joel Johnson, whose next big challenge is less than a month away. The 47-year-old Minnesota native is gearing up for his first IIHF Women’s World Championship (20 to 31 August) as a head coach in Calgary, Alberta, after assisting Bob Corkum with the 2019 gold-medal run in Espoo, Finland. Johnson had previously been tagged interim head coach after Corkum stepped away from the national team earlier this year.

“Certainly the groundwork has been laid with our women’s team winning a gold medal in the previous Olympics in South Korea in dramatic fashion,” said Johnson. “I can’t wait to continue on with the incredible foundation that was laid by those players and staff that were involved with that.” 

As the head coach of the U18 women’s national team, he captured four straight IIHF gold medals from 2015 to 2018, as well as a silver medal as an assistant coach in 2012.

In addition to veteran leaders such as Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight, Johnson’s just-announced roster for Calgary features plenty of highly touted newcomers like Abby Roque, Grace Zumwinkle, and Abbey Murphy. While the Women’s Worlds – less than six months ahead of the Olympics due to unprecedented pandemic-related scheduling changes – will be a useful measuring stick for Beijing, Johnson emphasized that winning a sixth straight world title is his top priority.

“Our player pool is deep,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some great young players. Seven or eight haven’t had any [senior] national team experience. So they’ll certainly get a taste of what it’s like at the highest level and be forced into some evaluation right off the bat. But make no mistake, our goal is not just to use this as an evaluatory tool. Unlike the NHL players, we’ve got the privilege to then have some practice and residency time with that group. That’ll be really our primary evaluation. When we get to Calgary in August, certainly we're going to watch and see how the players perform. But our goal is to win a World Championship, and that’ll stay number one.”

On top of his IIHF-related duties, Johnson, a former long-time University of Minnesota bench boss, will coach the University of St. Thomas’s NCAA Division III women’s team in 2021-22 in St. Paul.

USA Hockey also announced that David Hoff will serve as the head coach of its 2022 national Para ice hockey team. (The sport is known as “sled hockey” in the U.S.) Hoff was an assistant coach at the 2018 Paralympics, where the U.S. won the gold medal, and served as head coach at the last two world championships, winning gold in 2019 and 2021.