Simmons: Team USA is playing Olympic hockey with a heavy heart


PYEONGCHANG — Ben Smith turned on his phone, scrolled to a photograph, showed it, and for a moment he couldn’t speak at all.

The photo was of two-year-old Ellie, wearing a blue Team USA jersey, her father’s name and her last name stitched across the back, sitting in the stands at Gangneung Hockey Centre, hugging her puppy tightly, her mom seated right beside her.

“I love Ellie, but I’m sitting in the stands with the wrong Johannson,” said Smith, the director of player personnel for Team USA. “For the last 10 years, every time I’ve been at a hockey game, I’ve been sitting beside him. You get used to hearing his voice and his thoughts. And I keep expecting him to walk around the corner and sit down with us. His wife is here and his daughter is here and I’m thinking of our friendship, working with him, everybody’s here for this big event, but we’re missing the biggest guy of all.”

Jim Johannson, general manager of Team USA, died in his sleep 24 days ago at the very young age of 53. He will not be replaced for the Olympics, quite possibly because he can’t be replaced. But there is a Team USA jersey hanging in the American dressing room, his name on the back, the number 18 signifying the year of these Winter Olympic Games.

“The night of his wake was like a hockey party,” said Smith. “But there was one guy missing. And you just kept thinking, he was going to walk in there and everything would be all right. Because that was the kind of guy Jim was. He was always trying to make people comfortable and happy. And to tell you the truth, it really feels bizarre for him not to be here. He was, in a couple of easy words: American hockey.

“We talked about doing different things,” said Smith. “But we thought it might be a nice touch for the kids to be reminded that this was his vision. All these kids have been through American camps, American development teams, different American programs. Hopefully we can carry this through to conclusion and honour his name as best we can.”

This is a remarkable time for American hockey. Had the Olympics included NHL players this time around, Team USA would have had Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, Brock Boeser, Charlie McAvoy, Seth Jones, Blake Wheeler, so many of these relatively young players who were helped along the way by the passion and development plans of Johannson.

There has been no Canadian equivalent to Johannson, no one person working the grass roots, the national development camps, working as a conduit to the growth USHL, to skill development coming not only from the usual places like Minnesota and New England, but from Arizona and California and Florida and Tennessee and Missouri. The U.S. is the emerging power in hockey. Johannson created the template.

“There’s a thread that runs through every part of our hockey, on both the international and national side, the female …read more

Source:: Nationalpost


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