It’s impossible to compare teams and seasons and national title runs, but Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson said shortly after the final buzzer of the title game that the 2021 National Championship was the most exhausting and difficult one he had ever experienced.
And he has experienced many. With his team’s win this year, he became the only DI women’s hockey coach to win six titles – the Badgers were the last team standing in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2019 and now in 2021.
A bench boss that rarely shows emotion – good or bad – he was visibly stunned and then ecstatic when his team took the title in overtime thanks to an improbable goal from behind the net by Watts.
— espnW (@espnW) March 21, 2021
“It’s never easy, but we stuck with it,” he said on the tv broadcast immediately after the game. “It’s been a wonderful year, but a challenging year.”
This unprecedented season presented difficulties for every player, coach and staff member on every team whether they took the ice this season or not. Having the 2020 season get shut down in its final two weeks was the mostly unspoken – but ever-present – pall hanging over everyone as they knew that despite all the accommodations, testing and precautions they took, it could all end at any moment.
Through that all, the Badgers were ranked first or second the entire season, won the program’s ninth WCHA regular season and playoff crowns and advanced to their record seventh-straight Frozen Four before earning their sixth title – tying them for most NCAA championships with Minnesota.
Johnson and his staff have created and cultivated a culture of excellence and winning at Wisconsin. His players past and present rave about playing in Madison and learning from him. The success of former Badgers on and off the ice tell the story of Johnson’s far-reaching impact on women’s hockey. He is both a legend and just their coach.
In his 18th season behind the bench for Wisconsin, Johnson the all-time winningest coach in Division I women’s hockey history with a career record of 539-95-47. He earned his ninth WCHA Coach of the Year award this season.
This was a Wisconsin team that thrived in the third period and overtime. They seemed to rise to the occasion again and again in ways they didn’t quite muster in earlier periods of the game. Whether it was a flair for the dramatic or a different type of motivation, Johnson’s team got it done late in the game, scoring 37 of the team’s 77 goals this season in the final frame of the game.
Opponents scored just nine of their 32 goals against them during those periods. The Badgers played in six overtime games this season and went 4-1-1 and captured the regular season title, the WCHA tournament title and the national championship with overtime wins.
Experience matters. Going into the title game, Wisconsin were the defending national champions who were more comfortable on the biggest stage. But that wasn’t ultimately the experience that mattered. They also had faced more do-or-die scenarios this year and come out on top. The coaches believed in them and they believed in themselves and that certainty, captain Brette Pettet said, was what carried them to the title.
The team was fast and deep and even-keeled. They got scoring from across their lines. They adjusted and adapted – to their teammates, to their opponents and to the circumstances. They were prepared, but not cocky. They won when they had to.
They bent, but they did not break.
For all these reasons and more, Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson is the 2021 USCHO Coach of the Year.