PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – The United States men’s hockey team added an extra locker stall inside its dressing room at the Gangneung Hockey Centre. Not for a player or coach, but for someone who brought them all together.
The stall is used as a memorial for beloved General Manager Jim Johannson, the architect of USA Hockey who died in his sleep at age 53 on Jan. 21.
The locker is adorned with Johannson’s nameplate and contains the Rochester native’s jersey from the 1988 Olympics as well as a book full of news stories written since his death.
In a moment that was both uplifting and heartbreaking, Johannson’s wife, Abby, and 2-year-old daughter, Ellie, took part in the official team photo before Saturday’s practice. Ellie wore a replica of her father’s Olympic jersey.
“We lost a big part of our soul,” said Dave Fischer, USA Hockey’s senior director of communications.
As the United States prepares for its first preliminary-round game on Wednesday against Slovenia, Johannson’s presence is felt in visible reminders everywhere.
His Olympic number (24) is stitched inside the jerseys. The initials “JJ” — as he was known to everyone in the hockey world — are emblazoned on helmets and shirts and pins worn by players and coaches.
Team officials carry poker chips with “JJ” on one side and “USA” on the other. Johannson’s jersey also hangs in the coaches’ dressing room and in their office at the Olympic Village.
“He was always a guy who in a general manager role cared for you as a person first off,” U.S. defenseman Jonathon Blum said. “You get some GMs who think you are a piece of meat, but he cared about the person you were first, and that goes a long way.”
Johannson, a 1982 Rochester Mayo graduate who went on to play at Wisconsin, had his fingerprints on every facet of USA Hockey. Players at all levels of the program — youths and NHLers, men and women — revered him because of his personal connection to them.
He had final say on the Olympic roster and then personally called every coach and player to inform them that they had made the team, which was one of his favorite parts of the job.
“Jimmy was on the other end of those calls to tell us because he believed in us,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said. “We should be awful grateful for that, ready to do whatever we can to represent us the way he had in his plans.”
Johannson told close friends that one of his best days as general manager came when he got to inform this year’s Olympians that they had made the team, which consists of non-NHL players for the first time since 1994.
Wild prospect Jordan Greenway received his call as he driving back to Boston University after Christmas break.
“Having it come from him was pretty special,” Greenway said. “Probably the best Christmas present I got. I was really close to JJ. He had a great influence on my career.”
Blum said the best way he and teammates can honor Johannson is by how they play. Johannson constructed this Olympic roster with a certain vision after the NHL pulled out its players.
“We want to play our best for him because he believed in every one of us,” Blum said. “We want to go out and make him proud.”
Johannson’s reach extended well beyond building rosters. No task was beneath him. Staffers often would find him drenched in sweat as he helped unload equipment and set up lockers.
Upon arriving at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Johannson received a call from a player who didn’t have toilet paper in his room. Johannson went and found some and delivered it.
“He was a tireless worker who was universally loved,” said Lou Nanne, Minnesota’s unofficial hockey ambassador. “It would not surprise me if we had to hire two people to do the job now.”
Johannson’s death, Fischer said, leaves a “great big hole” in USA Hockey. The organization has not appointed an acting general manager.
“As Pat Kelleher, our executive director, said: ‘There’s one general manager of this team and there always will be and that’s Jim Johannson,’ ” Fischer said.