Preseason Starts Tonight; Thoughts On Mark Johnson

First and foremost, let’s talk about tonight’s Wild preseason opener against the Edmonton Oilers. Let’s face it, preseason games don’t compare in any way whatsoever to a regular season contest, but we really, really need some hockey around here.

Most years, we’ve still got the Twins distracting us because their in the middle of a pennant chase. Judging by how little buzz their is about the Twins right now, I can only assume they locked up their postseason bid a long time ago.

Josh Harding will get the starting nod between the pipes tonight. It was a long and painful recovery for Harding, who blew out his knee in a preseason game at St. Louis a year ago. He’s the feel good story of the night, and he’ll get the chance to continue his progression toward feeling 100% comfortable.

Mike Lundin was originally slated to make his Wild preseason debut tonight, but some back issues have taken him out of the lineup. Tyler Cuma, another comeback story after a knee injury, will take his place.

The Oilers are playing two games tonight, so the Wild won’t see 2011 first overall pick, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Instead, they’ll get a look at 2010 first overall pick, Taylor Hall. Former Wild players Eric Belanger and Cam Barker will also be in the lineup, as will Wild draft pick Ryan Jones and former Centennial Cougar, Tyler Pitlick.

It was also announced today that Mark Johnson, Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Pulford, long-time USA Hockey executive Toni Rossi and Wisconsin coaching legend Jeff Sauer will receive the 2011 Lester Patrick Awards.

I just wanted to get a few words out there about Mark Johnson. About five years ago, I came across a co-workers desk where he had VHS tapes of every single USA Hockey game from the 1980 Olympics. The Sweden game, the Czechoslovakia game, the Romania game…all of them were there. The co-worker was nice enough to let me borrow them, and I spent the next two weeks watching every…single…minute.

Here’s what I will always remember: Mark Johnson was an absolute beast on that team. In every single U.S. game, he was the best player on the ice. He led the team in scoring in the Olympics, and was dominant in the biggest games.

If you’ve seen footage from the game against the Czechs in the preliminary round, you might remember footage of Herb Brooks, caught on camera threatening to stuff a Koho down the throat of a Czech player. He was just a bit incensed because that player had taken a run at Johnson, and Brooks knew an injured Johnson meant a chance for a U.S. medal of any kind was gone.

Johnson scored two goals in the “Miracle on Ice” game against Russia: one of which tied the game at 2-2 when he stormed the net and buried a rebound with one second left in the first period. Then, in the third period, he again tied the game at 3-3 by making a great play to catch a wayward puck and slide it home.

Of course, Mike Eruzione got the game-winner and Jim Craig held the Russians off the board the rest of the way, but Johnson came up even bigger two days later against Finland in the game the U.S. had to have to win the gold medal. With the score tied at 2-2, Johnson made an unreal pass from behind the Finnish net with two defenders on him. He found Rob McClanahan on the doorstep for the game-winner. Check out the play here. And while you’re at it, check out his game-winner against the Czechs.

Johnson later added the shorthanded insurance goal in the 4-2 win.

I was always a little miffed when the Kurt Russell version of “Miracle” came out, due to the lack of attention on Johnson. In fact, the little that was shown of him portrayed him as some type of talented hot-dogger (or Hongo as folks in Duluth might call him) unwilling to play Brooks’ “team-first” game.

By all accounts, this was a complete misrepresentation of who Johnson was. From what I’ve gathered was that he was one of the most unassuming and humble players on a roster filled with unassuming and humble players. Watch any interview with him, and it won’t do anything to change that perception.

After watching those videos, Mark Johnson easily became my favorite non-Wild, non-UMD Bulldog player of all time. And it’s not easy to say that about a Wisconsin Badger (with obvious exceptions like Dany Heatley, Robbie Earl and Sean Hill).

So, congratulations to Mark Johnson, who in my mind is the greatest U.S. Olympic hockey player of my lifetime (I was 10 months old during the Miracle On Ice, so it counts).

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