Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson sees a lot of himself in his No. 1 goaltender, Mike Johnson.
Both have donned what many call the tools of ignorance and become goaltenders. Jackson points out that both were unheralded players growing up (though he admits Johnson was a bit less unheralded).
While the resume on the ice might look similar, it’s what each has experienced off the ice that makes Jackson relate best to his top goaltender.
Johnson, like Jackson, was raised by his mother in a single-parent household. According to Jackson, his team about to make its second Frozen Four appearance in four years when it takes on Minnesota-Duluth next Thursday, being the “man of the house” so to speak has forced his young netminder to grow up fast and assume responsibilities.
He calls Johnson a leader, something that no doubt came from raising his brother, Eric, who will matriculate in South Bend next season, and his sister, Lauren.
It is that maturity and leadership that Jackson hopes will help guide the Fighting Irish to the school’s first national championship next week in St. Paul, Minn.
“The fact that he’s been in that role of being a responsible adult at such a young age has really helped him,” Jackson said of Johnson, the most outstanding player of last weekend’s Northeast Regional. “His situation and mine was rather similar. His mom has done a tremendous job. The character of the kid is tremendous.”
According to Jackson, Johnson learned at a young age about accountability and the need to work for everything you earn. There wasn’t a father to help fight for Johnson’s playing time. Anything he achieved as a young player, he earned by himself.
“He had to fend for himself,” said Jackson. “He probably had to do a lot to help pay for his hockey, too, which is similar to what I grew up with.”
Jackson calls Johnson a “high-quality kid,” noting how impressive his development has been.
That development, at least since reaching the collegiate level, hasn’t been easy.
When he walked through the door in South Bend, Johnson was an immediate success. He had a great start to his freshman season, never allowing more than four goals and earning wins against Alaska, Ohio State and Michigan. After returning from break in January, he posted a 5-2-2 mark through the end of January.
From there, though, Johnson earned just a single win and finished his season on the bench, getting pulled after one period of the Irish’s final playoff game having given up four goals on nine shots.
“He never had been in his previous two years in junior hockey a true No. 1 guy,” said Jackson. “I knew he certainly had the instincts to be a great goaltender, but a lot of it was he wore down a bit last year.”
Jackson said Johnson returned this season in better physical shape, and this year got to share at least part of the job with rookie Steven Summerhays.
“I used Steven quite a bit more in the second half to make sure Mike was fresh,” said Jackson. “He responded with a better second half and his numbers were certainly better than the previous year.”
To the outside observer, Johnson may have appeared to be regressing to his past late in the year. The Irish were pushed to three games against Lake Superior in the CCHA quarterfinals. There, though, Johnson rebounded from a 4-3 loss in Game 2 to earn a 13-save, 4-2 victory in Game 3, returning the Irish to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA semis.
Once there, though, Johnson had to be pulled from an ugly 6-2 loss to Miami, giving up six goals on 24 shots. What many don’t know, though, was that Johnson and others on the team were felled by a stomach virus that week and the sophomore netminder was nowhere near full strength when he took the ice.
“When we got off the bus in Detroit, he had to run up to his hotel room,” said Jackson. “He didn’t go to dinner with the team that night. Then he had to come back and play one of the best offensive teams in the country.”
That didn’t mean Johnson may not have been damaged mentally. Jackson did something he typically wouldn’t do this late in the season, which is working with the goaltender alone during the week.
To prep for the regional, though, Jackson knew he and Johnson needed some alone time.
“We spent one day on the ice last week just getting back to the basics,” said Jackson. “It’s about his movement, staying compact, staying patient and not dropping early. We only were on the ice for a half hour and I think it was a positive session.”
Johnson’s response, as most know by now, was stellar. He stopped 32 shots, including six testers in overtime, in a 4-3 win over Merrimack. The next night, he stopped 37 of 38 New Hampshire shots to carry his team back to college hockey’s biggest stage.
Now, Jackson hopes that his young netminder can channel his maturity, his leadership and his character — not to mention his goaltending skills — to carry the team to the national title. Certainly, there are hurdles in the way, namely a Minnesota-Duluth team playing on what will be virtual home ice in Thursday’s semifinal.
But success in the Frozen Four wouldn’t just be a major boost for this up-and-coming program, it also would be mission accomplished.
“The objective is for us to win a national championship,” said Jackson. “I always tell the kids you have to get yourself in position to win one. You can set the goal of winning a national championship but so many things factor into that, no matter how good a team you are.
“You have to get to the Frozen Four, and now we’re here.”
And now Jackson hopes that the kid in whom he see so much of himself can channel one more thing from his coach: the success of a proven champion.