It’s hard to forget Al Michaels’ famous call on that cold winter night on Feb. 22, 1980: “Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!” The small snowy town of Lake Placid, New York, served as the backdrop for what Sports Illustrated called “the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.” A young left-winger named Mark Johnson scored two goals against the Soviet Union to propel Team USA to the gold medal game against Finland.
Of the 20 players who won a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics, 13 of them moved on to play in the NHL. Johnson played with five franchises during his 11-year career, which ended with the New Jersey Devils. However, the 5-foot-9 forward’s career began with their division rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Johnson’s NHL Debut
The Penguins selected Johnson 66th overall in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft and played his first game in Steel City on March 2, 1980. He recalls the media frenzy that met him once he landed in Pittsburgh.
“I remember coming out of the gate from the plane, and there were all these tv cameras. I was with my dad at the time. We were coming into Pittsburgh, and it was like, oh wow, this must be a big deal,” Johnson told the Penguins media. “I was uncomfortable in a lot of situations. One being after the games, the media would come in and immediately come over to me whether I had a good game or bad game, everyone wanted to talk to me.”
Johnson on the Trade Block
The Wisconsin native played two more seasons with the Penguins before being notified of the first trade of his career. He was being sent to the Minnesota North Stars in exchange for a second-round pick in the 1982 Draft. His time with the North Stars was fleeting, with 10 games and four points.
On Oct. 1, 1982, he was moved for the second time, this time to the Hartford Whalers along with Kent-Erik Andersson. Johnson found a temporary home in Connecticut and played there for three seasons. During the 1983-84 season, he was the team’s leading scorer with 87 points and had the “C” stitched on his sweater. Johnson remained captain for the 1984-85 season.
After appearing in 201 games for the Whalers, he was next put on a flight to St. Louis, where he played 20 games for the Blues before Johnson found his final destination in New Jersey.
Ending His Career with the Devils
The Devils gave up a fifth-round draft pick and Shawn Evans to acquire the then 28-year-old forward. For five seasons and 305 games, he called Brendan Byrne Arena home. The 1986-87 season was the first time the Devils introduced alternate captains, and Johnson, Aaron Broten, and Joe Cirella received the honors.
“New Jersey was great for me,” said Johnson in an interview with Peter Robinson, “The playoffs in 1988, Sean Burke coming back from the Olympics and we went on that run just to get into the playoffs…losing to Boston in Game 7 (of the Conference Final). I’m not sure we could have beaten Edmonton that year, but I think we could have taken a game or two (compared to the Bruins being swept).”
Johnson’s NHL career came to an end after the 1989-90 season. He played a few seasons overseas before officially hanging up his skates, and he announced his retirement in 1992. Like many players before him, he transitioned from player to coach and remains behind the bench today.
Johnson’s Coaching Career
Johnson has held the title of head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers women’s ice hockey team for the past 18 seasons. His first season was 2002-03 when he coached them to a 22-8-5 record. He has led his team to six NCAA national championships, and his overall record is 525–91–44.
His name is synonymous with hockey and greatness. The University of Wisconsin retired his No. 10 during a pre-game presentation on Feb. 9, 2019; he was the first player to have his number retired.
“I feel very fortunate that I had an opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. I remember being a stick boy when I was eight or nine and watching Badger hockey for a lot of years on the bench hoping one day I would get to wear the jersey and play for the University of Wisconsin,” Johnson said ahead of the presentation. “I got the opportunity to do that and have great memories. This is going to be a great memory that I am extremely proud of and certainly, my family is very proud of. It is going to be a very special night and I am looking forward to it. I can’t be more appreciative.”
No matter how much time passes, the Miracle on Ice will always be remembered. Johnson made his way to New Jersey with an impressive resume and helped the Devils to their first playoff appearance since they relocated from Colorado in 1982. It’s not every day a team receives a young player who is already in the history books. Johnson’s story is a unique one and his love for the game is undeniable; all these decades later, he still reports to the rink every day to put in a full day of work.
Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.