Brian Burke can list with great detail those responsible for the rise of USA Hockey over the years, but he’s also privy to the fact not many had as great an influence as Jim Johannson.
“There’s people who have buildings named after them at USA Hockey headquarters in Colorado Springs (Colorado), but I don’t know if anyone had more impact than ‘JJ’ during his tenure,” Burke told NHL.com of the late USA Hockey executive.
Now the president of hockey operations with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Burke worked for USA Hockey and alongside Johannson at 12 international events.
“I traveled the globe with him between the Winter Olympics (2010, 2014), a World Cup (in 2016) and on nine other national teams,” Burke said.
What moment will always resonate?
“After losing to Canada (3-2 in overtime) in the gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010, we were really crushed,” he said. “We came back to tie the game late and really thought we were going to pull that off. It was a team that wasn’t supposed to do anything; lucky if we finished sixth or seventh, according to the experts. After the gold medal game, I’m sitting there… My son (Brendan) died about a month before that (in an automobile accident).I’m sitting there thinking, it can’t get any worse than this, and then I hear tape. … It sounded like the taping of shin pads. So, I open the door and look into the dressing room at GM Place and there’s JJ, taping up players’ sticks, getting them ready to go home. I said, ‘JJ, sit and have a beer with us, you were a big part of this.’ He said, ‘No. We’ve got a couple guys going out first thing in the morning. Trainer needs me to help put their sticks together.’
“Imagine that? He’s taping sticks, but that’s what JJ was. Whatever it took, JJ was there.”
Johannson, who died of heart disease at 53 on Jan. 21, 2018, will be inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame during the Hall’s 50th induction dinner and ceremony on Wednesday at the Saint Paul RiverCentre. His widow, Abby, will speak on his behalf.
“For our daughter, Ellie (who turns 7 on Dec. 2), this is going to be a really special experience,” Abby said. “She’s been a part of a few other award ceremonies and I think she’ll have a memory of those, but I think this will be one where she starts to understand what an impact her daddy had in the world of hockey.
“I think for anyone who knew JJ, if you met him in a social setting, you would have no idea how accomplished he really was in the sport of hockey. He was just really understated, and you wouldn’t know that he was even involved or was a two-time Olympian.”
Johannson, who was assistant executive director of hockey operations with USA Hockey when he died, had a passion for the organization and love for the sport that was always prevalent.
“For me, it was so reflective on what great character JJ had and what a great person he was in showing how much influence and impact he had on players,” Abby said. “He had such a natural way about him. He was always so good at responding and so thoughtful to anyone and in almost any situation. He had time for everybody, which is a really unique quality, and had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel welcome and good. He was never exclusive. He was really amazing.”
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy said, “I just remember how much time he spent dedicated to the tournaments and doing the grunt work to make sure the hotels, the translators and all the details on top of picking the team was going smoothly. It usually takes five or six people to run the jobs he did just himself, so it was just amazing to see how organized and collected and great of a guy he was to set up everything every year.”
Born in Rochester, Minnesota, Johannson was selected in the seventh round (No. 130) of the 1982 NHL Draft by the Hartford Whalers. He spent four seasons playing center at the University of Wisconsin, where he won an NCAA championship in 1983, and then played in the International Hockey League with Salt Lake City, Indianapolis and Milwaukee from 1987-94. He also played for the US at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and the 1992 Albertville Olympics.
His first executive position was as general manager with Twin Cities of the United States Hockey League from 1995-2000.
Johannson joined USA Hockey in 2000 as manager of international activities and US Olympic Committee relations. As a USA Hockey executive, he was part of the management team for every Olympics since 2002, when the US won a silver medal in Salt Lake City. He also was part of the silver medal winning effort at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
“He was a great spokesperson for USA Hockey and one of the reasons I tried to go to those World Championship tournaments. To try to win one for him,” Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane said. “He did everything he could to try and get good players to come be there and compete. But, even more, you’d see him at all these big tournaments. He was there, he wanted to win and wanted to do whatever he could to help players any way possible. He was always great about that. I definitely miss him.”
Among the most significant accomplishments during Johannson’s tenure at USA Hockey was the US winning 64 medals (34 gold, 19 silver, 11 bronze) in major international competition. He also helped launch and implement the highly acclaimed American Development Model and secured USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, as a home for all US teams in 2015.
“We miss him a lot,” Vegas Golden Knights center Jack Acorn said. “His personality, his relationships with everyone, having him around, the way that he made you feel. He was a special man and in a special role and he did such a great job. Obviously, he leaves his daughter and his wife, so That’s tough. I hope they’re doing well. But, you know, from the hockey aspect, we miss him, and you miss him more as a person and a friend and the relationship you had.”
Johannson was promoted to senior director of hockey operations on Aug. 5, 2003 and was named assistant executive director of hockey operations on June 25, 2007.
“I think being a player himself allowed him to kind of put himself in their shoes, or skates,” Abby said. “He really liked that human interaction.”
Jim and Abby married in their hometown of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on Sept. 10, 2011, and Ellie was born five years later. Abby shared many stories with Ellie about her father each night before bed. She knows the conversations offer her daughter some insight into how great a man he was.
“We recently moved back to Michigan (from Colorado), and Ellie’s in first grade now,” Abby said. “She likes rock climbing, takes a ninja class and plays a bit of tennis. She’s pretty athletic.
“But she’s got JJ’s sense of humor, his quick-wittedness and some of his mannerisms, so it’s fun to watch her. It’s been fun to see her grow. I think JJ would be proud.”