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Jim Johnson promotes the fundamentals

06/26/2005, 12:45pm EDT
By Jamie Fabos

Few people have seen the game from as many angles as Jim Johnson. A 13-year National Hockey League veteran, Johnson represented his country on five U.S. National Teams and competed in the 1991 Canada Cup Tournament (now the World Cup of Hockey). He played collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota Duluth and competed in the United States Hockey League with St. Paul. As a coach, he has stood behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes, the U.S. National Junior Team and, most recently, his sons 14-year-old youth hockey team, winners of USA Hockey's 2005 National Championship at the Tier II 14 & Under level.

A graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, Johnson has also watched the game from the broadcast booth, serving both as a consultant to the general manager and the broadcast analyst for the Phoenix Coyotes. He served as an assistant coach for the Coyotes during the 2000-01 season and has coached three straight U.S. National Junior Teams (2000-02). As a player, he competed for five U.S. National Teams and also serves on the Executive Committee of the Hockey Equipment Certification Council.

Despite his impressive hockey experience, Johnson has no problem simplifying the game for his youth hockey students. His recent success at the '05 Nationals proves that theres nothing wrong with sticking to the fundamentals.

Its all about developing broad-base fundamental skills in a basic sense, he said. Make sure players have those skills -- that they can skate, pass, protect the puck, shoot the puck and stickhandle. Those are the basic skills that make good hockey players.

And while going from the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes to a bench of 14-year-olds may seem like a big change, its one Johnson has enjoyed thoroughly.

I have really enjoyed going back, he said. I've always coached at elite levels, and its been fun to go back to the state level, the youth level, to develop a group of kids who are really passionate about the game.

The 2005 Tier II 14 & Under National Champions, under Johnson's leadership, were a group of teenagers not from Minneapolis or Boston, but from Scottsdale, Ariz., an accomplishment Johnson attributes to the arrival of the Coyotes.

We have a group of 1990 birthdates (14- and 15-year-olds), who were 6-years-old when the NHL moved to Phoenix. Now we have a good, solid group of hockey players at that age. The NHL brings that out; it brings the passion of the game, and now we have good coaches in the area who understand the game.

Adding to the pleasure of the '05 Nationals win, was the fact that one of the kids hoisting the trophy was Johnsons own son, Derek, a young defenseman, now 15-years-old.

Its been an amazing group of kids. In three years with this group, weve never had one squabble, never had one kid saying, Hey, I dont like this guy. The greatest satisfaction for me last year was to watch my group achieve what they achieved while giving everyone an opportunity to play and to develop.

Johnson took a non-traditional team through a non-traditional route to the championship. While other teams were spending money on extensive travel and tournaments, Johnsons team did not join a travel league, but put all its resources into maximizing practice time.

I worry that the travel leagues, especially in the South, could send the wrong message to kids; that hockey is more important than their education. Some kids will miss 10-20 days of school for hockey tournaments. Up until January 15, my kids missed one day of school. Im adamant that these kids understand that school is more important than hockey. We put so much emphasis on the cost that we tend to forget that [hockey] is a great outlet for kids to develop and enjoy a great game.

So, while Johnson claims hes found his niche in coaching, the opportunities to use his varied experience keep knocking. For now, however, he plans to stay put and work on his new coaching e-learning company, Flexxcoach.

Im really happy with developing and coaching kids. Who knows where it will take me? This [Flexxcoach] business has taken a ton of time, and Im very passionate about what were doing. I dont look at going anywhere, other than to continue to build this product where we can provide the best tools for coaches.

Johnson, along with co-founders Mike Sullivan, Keith Blase and Keith Allain, were inspired to create Flexxcoach as an alternative to youth coaches who had a win at all costs philosophy. They hope to soon extend their business to include football, lacrosse and soccer as well as hockey.

We started to notice the frustration that was evident in every youth sport. It didnt matter which sideline -- baseball, hockey, football or soccer - we saw that the coaches were no longer teaching the fundamentals. It was win at all costs.

We know that 70 percent of kids by the age of 13 have left sports. Why? I think a big reason is that theyre not having fun. Flexxcoach came when some great minds got together and decided that this is the best way to educate coaches to give our kids a better experience. We wanted to change the philosophy. When kids are going to enjoy the game and have fun, weve really accomplished something as coaches.

Flexxcoach has partnered with both the NHL Coaches Association and the USA Hockey Coaching Education program to provide the highest possible level of training for these coaches. Currently, USA Hockey Level 3 coaches can obtain their recertification online through Flexcoach. In addition, there are 13 USA Hockey Coaching Education classes available online.

Another section of USA Hockey touched by Flexcoach is the Sled Hockey program. The program was developed largely because of the efforts of Blase, the U.S. National Team head coach.

I think its wonderful what Keith is doing, not only with Flexxcoach, but what hes giving back to sled hockey, Johnson said. Hes very passionate about sled hockey and about the game, and really wants to provide the best opportunity to give education to coaches.

Part of Johnsons intense interest in coaching comes from some powerful role models who touched his own hockey career.

There have been so many coaches that have had an impact on me: the late Dave Peterson, Bob Johnson, Tim Taylor. Dave was a real passionate guy. He loved to teach. Bob Johnson was a great coach; Lou Vairo got me involved in coaching the Select program in 1984-85 when I was still in college. Bob Gainey was a great mind of the game who helped me when I was traded from Pittsburgh to Minnesota. Barry Smith has been a great influence on me as a coach and as a player, too. Mike Burke, one of my squirt coaches. He played pro, but he knew how to teach.

College hockey also had a major impact on Johnson.

My college coach was Mike Sertich. He really put us kids at UMD in the NHL. He taught us what it was like to work and to condition ourselves to be top-level players. He was a student of the game. He took us to levels we didnt believe we could play, but he got us believing in them because of the preparation. Because of him, a lot of those guys are still involved in the game.

Because of Johnsons involvement in the game, 500 coaches in Grand Rapids, Mich., heard a unique perspective on the game, nearly two dozen 14-year-olds in Scottsdale, Ariz., won a National Championship and made memories that will last a lifetime. And if Johnson meets his objectives, young athletes across the country will learn from highly educated coaches who are focused on teaching the fundamentals and making the game fun.

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