Unless you count some of his last-minute forays into training for Ironman triathlons, Mark Johnson is no masochist. But the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey coach would be happy if some pain came his way next week.
Johnson has nine players — former, current and future — presently vying for spots on the American team in the 2014 Winter Olympics. He wants them all to make it — even if it means having some huge holes blown into his roster for next season.
“For these players to get an opportunity to do this, I’m all for it,” he said. “I’d love all of them to make it and get that experience.”
USA Hockey is in the process of conducting a weeklong evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Its brain trust, featuring Katey Stone of Harvard as coach, is taking stock of a 41-person roster during practices and scrimmages. Cuts will be announced Monday, an unenviable task Johnson knows all too well after serving as Team USA coach in 2010 when it claimed the silver medal in Vancouver.
“It’s not a good day to be a coach because you’re taking dreams away,” he said.
UW has more invitees than any other school, which speaks well of the program Johnson has overseen since 2002. Six participants have finished competing for the Badgers — winger Brooke Ammerman, center Brianna Decker, winger Meghan Duggan, winger Hilary Knight, center Erika Lawler and goaltender Jessie Vetter — with Duggan, Knight, Lawler and Vetter looking to reprise their Olympic roles from 2010.
Three more prospects have varying degrees of eligibility remaining at UW. Defenseman Courtney Burke will be a sophomore, goaltender Alex Rigsby will be a senior and winger Anne Pankowski is an incoming freshman.
Of all the roster possibilities, the one that intrigues the most is the idea of having two Wisconsin-born goaltenders who led the Badgers to NCAA titles on the squad.
Vetter, from Cottage Grove, might be the best women’s puck-stopper in the world, a point driven home by Johnson’s declaration that “she’s better now than she’s ever been.”
Rigsby, from Delafield, isn’t too far behind. She and Vetter make up half of a pool that includes Brianne McLaughlin, who played at Robert Morris, and Molly Schaus, who played at Boston College.
McLaughlin and Schaus were Olympic backups to Vetter in 2010, but the idea of Rigsby making the cut was fortified in April when Johnson hustled out to sign Ann-Renee Desbiens, a top Canadian prospect from Quebec, for next season.
“I hope she’s not with us to be honest with you,” Johnson said of Rigsby, whose career numbers with the Badgers (83-16-6, 1.55 goals-against average, .940 save ratio, 23 shutouts) compare favorably to those of Vetter between 2005 and ’09 (91-13-10, 1.19, .941, 39).
Team USA returns only two of its six defensemen from 2010, which seems to bode well for Burke, an Albany, N.Y., native who was one of the top rookie blue-liners in the nation last season. The odds appear stacked against Pankowski, a resident of Laguna Hills, Calif., who is the youngest player at the camp, because the field at forward is ridiculously deep.
Johnson, who played and coached in the Olympics, is monitoring the camp from afar while embracing his newly created role as a grandfather. He hopes the news Monday is all good no matter how much it hurts.
“We’ll get through what we need to get through here,” he said of the Badgers heading into 2013-14. “Those kids get an opportunity to fulfill a dream.”