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Column:: The influence of their fallen leader still resonates for the U.S. men’s hockey team

Jim Johannson, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, died in late January but left an indelible mark on the program.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Coach Tony Granato had a full complement of players for the first time at the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey practice Saturday. Yet, there was an empty stall in the team’s locker room at Gangneung Hockey Centre, the space occupied only by a jersey that will never be worn, a vivid reminder of a loss that can never be erased.

Jim Johannson, Team USA’s general manager, chief talent evaluator, prime strategist and, really, its soul, died in his sleep at 53 on Jan. 21 in Colorado Springs. His absence was palpable Saturday as the team began its final preparations for its Olympic opener against Slovenia on Wednesday.

He should have been sitting in the stands, his ginger-colored hair visible in the crowd as he watched the line rushes and discussed the power-play formations. He should have been striding through the hallway to make sure every last detail had been taken care of so that players and team staffers would have the best opportunity to make him and their country proud in these Games. He did a little bit of everything for USA Hockey and for U.S. teams at every level, and he made the organization and its players better for his presence.

His was the voice everyone welcomed hearing, whether he was telling them where the team meal would be, when the bus would come, or, so happily for so many, that they had, if improbably, become Olympians.

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“Every decision that’s made from USA Hockey on how to get USA Hockey better, he’s been part of that equation,” Granato said somberly.

On his jacket Granato wore a pin that depicted an American flag, with the initials JJ in the foreground. Underneath, Granato wore a tee shirt that also honored the memory of Johannson, who was Granato’s teammate at the 1988 Calgary Olympic hockey tournament and longtime friend. Team staffers keep in their pockets coins with the same motif as the pin. Because Olympic rules don’t allow tributes or messages on teams’ uniforms, the border inside the neck of every U.S. player’s practice jersey bore Johannson’s old number, 24. A jersey with Johannson’s name on it has a place of pride in the coaches’ offices and back at the athletes’ village, too.

“We think of him often,” Granato said.

That was especially true Saturday, when they were all together but really weren’t.

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“It’s devastating, honestly,” said defenseman James Wisniewski, a former Duck who had been playing for a second-division team in Germany when Johansson called him with the news that he had earned an Olympic berth. “He was one of the closest people in my hockey family. I got such great pride and joy when he got to call me and tell me that. I had chills down my spine.”

Johannson’s wife, Abigail, and their young daughter, Ellie, were special guests at Saturday’s practice, a source of comfort and sorrow at the same time. Ellie wore an oversized jersey and happily skipped around the arena, charming everyone she met and enjoying the attention. Abigail will be part of every team function here.

“It makes you feel good and it makes you miss Jimmy more, realizing that he’s not here,” Granato said. “He left a beautiful family and it was nice of them to be here today.”

Another of Johannson’s greatest legacies is the team he molded ever so carefully for the Pyeongchang tournament.

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Without NHL players the 12-team field is unpredictable, though the Olympic Athletes from Russia appear to have an edge in pure skill and scoring potential. Johansson bet that speed and skill and character will carry the Americans far. Along with experienced players such as former NHL forward Brian Gionta and defensemen Wisniewski and Jon Blum of Ladera Ranch, Johannson made sure to bring in young legs by including NCAA players Troy Terry — a Ducks draft pick — Jordan Greenway, Will Borgen and Ryan Donato. Greenway, at 6 feet 6, will also give the smallish team size up the middle

“I like the way we built our team. And again, Jimmy put a lot of work into this to make sure that we put the right pieces in. This is all Jim Johannson’s work as far as every piece of it,” Granato said. “He thought through this whole thing, on how he put the staff together. He thought through this whole thing on how we were going to do evaluations and draw players from. How we were going to get them, how we were going to get them ready. And that’s what excites me, to play out the plan that he had in place for all of us to execute.”

The plan remains. So do memories of a man who helped shape lives as much as he shaped careers.

“He’s here in our hearts and our minds and our souls,” Wisniewski said, “and we’re going to do him proud.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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