For the Lakeville South girls’ hockey team, it was weird not having coach Mark Johnson at practice Monday.
Being away from the ice was even harder for Johnson, who was with his daughter at a hospital as she was expecting the birth of her daughter — Johnson’s first grandchild.
“I hate missing practice. It killed me,” said Johnson, beginning his second year as the Cougars’ coach. “But I was with my daughter and that was where I needed to be. I am grateful that I was there. It was really special.”
Senior captain Ellie Lauderdale and many other skaters were aware of their coach’s life-changing event that day of practice. Lauderdale said she could not be happier for Johnson.
Just as he was there for his daughter, Johnson is the supporting force in charge of rebuilding a Cougars program that graduated nine seniors and has reached back-to-back state tournaments.
Monday’s practice was an important one. Lakeville South lost its season opener Nov. 12 to three-time defending champion Eden Prairie 4-0. The Cougars’ assistant coaches led a solid practice, Lauderdale said, and after the first few minutes, Johnson’s absence was ignored.
It was a quick turnaround for Lakeville South, which hosted Farmington on Tuesday. Johnson was glad to be back inside Hasse Arena.
“I need this,” Johnson said pointing to the ice. “That is my sanctuary. It helps me relax.”
Johnson’s return sparked the Cougars to a 3-1 victory. It was their first of the season and a crucial step for a team that returns a core of experienced skaters headlined by Lauderdale and fellow captain Halle Gill.
With 21 goals last season, Gill finished with one fewer than Janna Haeg, who led the team in points and is now playing at St. Cloud State.
“It has been different for me just not having those [older] girls there,” Gill said. “Now we are the oldest. At practice sometimes it is like we keep waiting for those girls to show up, but they don’t and you realize this is our group now.”
Losing that many seniors has brought lower expectations from people outside the Cougars program, Gill said. When she hears others say Lakeville South does not have what it takes to defend its South Suburban Conference crown, at first she gets angry.
She said the Cougars’ recent success speaks for itself, but Gill is also starting to embrace the doubters.
“Let them think that,” Gill said, “because then when we go in and play them, they will not be as prepared. They will think they got us because we lost some players.”
It is up to Johnson to find linemates for Gill who complement her instant offense. Adjusting line combinations is a process he said is still on going.
Lakeville South’s defense will hinge on Lauderdale’s communication skills against opposing rushes and her ability to contain some of the South Suburban’s top talent, Johnson said.
“Each team in our conference has a Division I player with them,” he said. “They will all be gunning for us.”
To help the Cougars defend their top spot, do not expect Johnson to miss another practice. One thing he said he is preparing for, however, is “old man jokes” now that he is a grandfather.
Johnson does not look the part of a granddad. However, his youthful looks are not going to stop his players from giving him a hard time.
“We might have to come up with a few jokes,” Lauderdale said between laughs. “Maybe just every once in a while.”