It's been a frequent storyline more recently, but over the next few years you're going to be hearing a lot more about the rise of American hockey. Perhaps no one has had more to do with that development than Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's longtime assistant executive director of hockey operations. His influence on the organization cannot be overstated, which is why the news of his sudden passing has shaken the hockey community, not just in the U.S. but across the world.
Johannson died in his sleep early Sunday morning at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to USA Hockey. He was 53.
"We are beyond shocked and profoundly saddened," said Pat Kelleher, executive director of USA Hockey, in a statement. "As accomplished as Jim was in hockey, he was the absolute best, most humble, kind and caring person you could ever hope to meet. His impact on our sport and more importantly the people and players in our sport have been immeasurable."
As part of Johannson's duties at USA Hockey, he served as the general manager for many of its national teams and oversaw many other initiatives such as the National Team Development Program and American Development Model that have had and will continue to have a profound impact on the future of the sport in the United States.
The Rochester, Minnesota, native arrived at USA Hockey in 2000, serving as manager of international activities and U.S. Olympic Committee relations. In 2003, he was promoted to senior director of hockey operations, which put him in position to shape the future of USA Hockey on the international stage.
Before Johannson took over the hockey operations job, U.S. national teams had very little success beyond the Miracle on Ice in 1980, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the women's 1998 Olympic gold medal. Those were significant moments, but they were only moments, not sustained success. In 2003, U.S. teams had not won a World Junior Championship or a Women's World Championship and had earned just one medal -- a bronze -- at the Men's World Championship since 1956.
Even with the player pool growing, the U.S. was not converting that to success internationally. That started to change right around the time Johannson stepped in on the hockey operations side.
The World Junior Championship is probably where you can see Johannson's biggest impact as an administrator. He was part of the management team that helped bring home the first gold medal at that event in 2004, and he was general manager for the gold-medal-winning teams in 2010, 2013 and 2015. At the recently completed 2018 World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York, Team USA earned the bronze medal, giving USA Hockey a medal in three straight years at the event. That had never happened before. With six medals in the past nine tournaments, including three gold, USA Hockey has officially ascended to join the elite teams at the under-20 level.
Across men's, women's, junior, under-18 and sled hockey, U.S. national teams have won 34 gold medals, 19 silver and 11 bronze in major international competition since Johannson came aboard, according to USA Hockey. He would have been the first to deflect credit for that to the players and coaches, however.
While fiercely competitive, Johannson was a genuinely humble man who always put others first. His biggest mission was to make sure the players, coaches and support staff had everything they needed to compete and have a first-class experience no matter where they were. This is something I had the chance to learn in three years working at USA Hockey. It was always about the players first, and if you've seen the outpouring from NHL stars, coaches and executives in the wake of his passing, you'll see that Johannson's efforts hardly went unnoticed:
Deeply saddened to hear this news. Thoughts and prayers with the Johannson family. Grateful for the opportunity JJ gave me to play for USA hockey. A great man, who will always be remembered.
- Auston Matthews (@AM34) January 21, 2018
Shocked and Deeply saddened by this news. JJ gave me the opportunity to represent USA and I'll always be thankful to him for that. His fun loving personality was infectious. He went above and beyond to make the USA hockey experience so unforgettable. He will be missed by so many! https://t.co/bQrbSGxNgx
- Charlie McAvoy (@CMcAvoy44) January 21, 2018
I am deeply saddened by the passing of JJ. @usahockey and the entire hockey community lost an incredible friend & ambassador today. Thoughts and prayers are with his family in this difficult time.
- Joe Pavelski (@jpav8) January 21, 2018
What a sad day... JJ did everything in his power to make my @usahockey experiences the best it possibly could've been! He truly cared for all of the players/coaches/trainers and everyone else he worked with! He will be missed https://t.co/DFehnXjnIM
- Matthew Tkachuk (@TKACHUKycheese_) January 21, 2018
We lost a true friend in Jim Johannson today.
He was so compassionate and as loyal a friend as you could have. He was the ultimate teammate.
I am deeply saddened and shocked and sorry that he is no longer with us.
He was a special human being. pic.twitter.com/vGAR4ZTFu2
- Coach Tony Granato (@TonyGranato) January 21, 2018
The Johannson culture
As good of an executive as Johannson -- or "JJ," as he was better known in hockey -- was, the first things you'll hear about are his kindness and his loyalty. There was no ego to speak of, as he treated everyone from the NHL GMs he'd work with in putting together Olympic teams down to the interns the same way. Everyone played a part and everyone mattered in his world.
Johannson's leadership style was one built on respect and courteousness. It was not uncommon to see Johannson helping the equipment managers prepare the room for the players or helping load hockey bags onto a truck or bus. He empowered everyone else to do the jobs he hired them to do, but he was there at a moment's notice to provide a helping hand or just lighten someone's load. He was the ultimate team player.
Preparation for the 2018 Olympics provided Johannson's biggest challenge as a team builder but also the biggest opportunity. NHL GMs had been in charge of building Olympic teams since 1998, but with the NHL not releasing players for Pyeongchang, it was Johannson's team to create. It was an opportunity he clearly relished, as he had the ability provide a second chance to so many players who never thought the Olympics would be an option.
A seventh-round pick of the Hartford Whalers in 1982, Johansson never made it to the NHL himself. However, he was an Olympian in 1988 and 1992. Few people knew better than Johannson how much getting that call was going to mean for these players in particular.
"I've had a lot of fun at USA Hockey, but one of the most fun days I've had was calling 15 or 16 guys early one morning from my house to tell them they were on the 2018 Olympic team," Johannson said in recent comments about building this team (via USA Hockey). "And the second time was telling the last few guys that they made the team. It meant so much to me that I got to call those guys and tell them that they were going to represent us."
In subsequent conversations with Johannson, it was easy to see there was no one more excited about this team. He obviously wanted to win gold, but just giving 25 players the chance to walk in an opening ceremony and to play on the ice under the Olympic rings was a huge thrill for him.
USA Hockey now faces the impossible task of trying to replace an individual who very much was the heart and soul of the organization. That said, the culture that Johannson built gives USA Hockey a legacy to build upon.
Winning is no longer a hope for U.S. squads, it has become an expectation. That's really only been the case in the last 10 years or so. The talent pool deepened as part of the grassroots movement and natural growth of hockey in the U.S., but Johannson was often the one putting people in positions, be it coaches or players, to make that trend count when it came to international competitions.
"Jim's positive influence was enormous and will be felt for generations to come," said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey, in a statement. "He was widely respected across the world and his genuine nature helped advance our sport in so many ways. Today, we are a medal contender every time we put a team on the ice for international competition, and he played a major role in helping us get to that point. It's a sad day for all of us."
Another piece of Johannson's overall legacy includes the American Development Model, which was a huge collaboration within the hockey department that has helped revolutionize development from the youngest levels all the way to sending players to the NHL. Many people at USA Hockey have worked directly on making that project a success over the last decade, but its central tenet is putting the players first by creating a positive environment and experience while building passion for the game. Sounds a lot like Johannson's core values, too.
USA Hockey still hasn't hit its ceiling in terms of competitiveness on the international stage and progress as the player pool continues to grow. It's hard to imagine what it would have looked like without the spark provided by Johannson's leadership over the last 15 years.
Johannson is survived by his wife, Abby, and his young daughter, Ellie.