It was a record-breaking year for Wisconsin women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson. In October, the Badgers won their 465th game with Johnson at the helm and he surpassed Harvard’s Katey Stone as the winningest Division I women’s coach in history. They didn’t stop there. Johnson finished the season with 494 wins, 17 ahead of Mercyhurst’s Mike Sisti and 18 ahead of Stone.
There’s not a lot to say about Johnson that hasn’t already been said. His is a storied career, both on the ice and behind the bench. In his 16 season as the women’s coach, he’s created a powerhouse program that has missed the NCAA tournament just twice since 2005. His became the first jersey ever retired by a Wisconsin hockey program, and he became the winningest coach at Wisconsin, passing Jeff Sauer, with the Badgers’ 3-2 win over Ohio State in the WCHA semifinals.
However, none of those achievements mean as much right now as having led Wisconsin to their fifth national championship. Playing in their sixth-straight Frozen Four, the Badgers finally reached the pinnacle with a 2-0 win over rival Minnesota to win their first title since 2011.
After the win, Johnson said the biggest thing he was feeling was relief. Normally rather even keeled at all time, he admitted he wanted this win for a senior class that had set new records for the Badgers on the ice and had gone through an inordinate amount of personal trauma and strife off the ice.
With Johnson at the helm, the Badgers shutout opponents in the NCAA tournament and allowed just three goals all postseason. Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist Annie Pankowski scored 11 goals in seven postseason games, and goalie Kristen Campbell post her ninth, 10th, and 11th shutouts of the year en route to being named Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four.
This was hardly the roster that anyone thought the Badgers would have this season. Pankowski and Emily Clark took last season off to join their respective national teams in centralization for the Olympics. Sophie Shirley deferred entry into Wisconsin, playing in the CWHL and earning rookie of the year honors before enrolling. Maddie Rolfes was given a medical red-shirt for an additional year of eligibility. Campbell transferred to Wisconsin after the dissolution of the women’s hockey program at North Dakota.
Yet, somehow, it worked. Whatever that elusive “it,” is, Pankowski said, this team had it. Johnson adjusted, his players bought in, and the team had a chemistry that every player said they’d never felt before. There was trust and faith and a lot of fun, something Pankowski and Clark were looking forward to finding in hockey again this year.
When the Badgers tied their final two regular-season games against Ohio State, they let the regular season conference title fall through their grasp. The team met that Monday, decided they never wanted to have the feeling of giving away a title again, and went on a postseason tear that led them to a national championship.
Johnson has created a culture at Wisconsin where leaders are developed, encouraged, and thrive. Players are empowered and supported, and it shows in their confidence, their playing style, and how they respond to adversity. The Ohio State series looked like many others in recent Badgers history where the Badgers poured on shots, but could not score. In the past, the frustration and difficulty of that situation had burned Wisconsin and ended their season. Instead, Johnson’s calm demeanor and what Roque describes as a “not too high, not too low” approach to things kept the team on track and allowed them to regroup. There was no panic, only a resolve not to let the same thing happen again.
In recognition of his accomplishment, Mark Johnson is the USCHO Women’s D-I Coach of the Year.