Hockey: Johannson lived to give back to the game he loved

December 5, 2018
K. Johannson

Former Mustang gave ‘everything he knew’ to hockey

Hockey sent Ken Johannson around the world.

It started in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. It took him to the University of North Dakota for four years, to Europe for three years and to Warroad for one before he landed in Rochester in 1959.

He never left.

Johannson committed himself to a 34-year career in administration at Mayo Clinic and committed himself to making Rochester’s youth hockey program into one that churned out dozens of college and professional players.

“He was one of the first people to really start the youth hockey schools in Rochester,” said former Rochester Mayo boys hockey coach Lorne Grosso, who played with Johannson for the Rochester Mustangs in the 1960s. “He had so much energy. ... For someone to put that much time into starting the youth camps that he did, he just loved the game.

“Kenny gave the game everything he knew.”

Johannson, whom family members said took as much pride in creating the Rochester Youth Hockey Foundation as he did in helping to create the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, died last Tuesday at age 88.

“Dad got involved in starting the Rochester Youth Hockey Foundation, the youth camps,” said his son, John, a 1980 Mayo High School graduate who now lives in Minneapolis. “We found out years later, people would tell us, he would call families who hadn’t registered their sons and ask them why, and if it was because the family budget was too tight, he’d say ‘come on out, the ice (time) is paid for and we have a jersey for you.’”

Ken Johannson is survived by daughter Judy (Judd) Stevenson, Neenah, Wis.; son John (Margarita) Johannson, Minneapolis; Abigail Tompkins Johannson, Colorado Springs, Colo.; and seven grandchildren.

A visitation is scheduled for noon Wednesday at Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester. A memorial service will follow at 2 p.m.

“He was serious on the ice, but I always think of him smiling and joking in the dressing room,” Grosso said. “He had a way of keeping everybody loose.

“We didn’t make much money playing for the Mustangs. If we were making $25 a game and someone said ‘we’re going to bump you down to $10,’ he’d have said ‘OK.’ Then if they said ‘you’re going to have to play for nothing,’ he’d have probably said ‘OK.’ He played because he loved the game.”


Johannson’s love for the game developed in Edmonton, where he was born on Oct. 6, 1930.

He grew up playing the game in a hockey-mad city, province and country, and just before his father passed away, he made Ken promise to go to college and get an education.

So Ken found the closest Division I hockey-playing college to Edmonton — the University of North Dakota. He started at the school on a football scholarship — as it had no Canadian hockey players on scholarship at the time — and played three years of football, in addition to his hockey career.

Ken excelled on the ice at UND from 1950-53, being named a team captain in his final two seasons and finishing his college career with 54 goals and 139 points.

He was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1977.

He played three years of professional hockey in England and Switzerland, then moved to Minnesota to take a job as a teacher and the co-head coach of Warroad High School’s boys hockey team.

“They hired Bob Johnson at the same time as a teacher and co-head coach,” John Johannson said. “Neither of them knew the other had been hired. The school wanted two good hockey guys to run their team and play on the local amateur team.”

Ken Johannson and Johnson had been roommates for two years at North Dakota. Both of Ken’s sons — Jim and John — would eventually play college hockey for Johnson at the University of Wisconsin, where they won a national championship together in 1983.

Ken moved from Warroad to Milwaukee to sell toothpaste for Proctor & Gamble and he met his future wife, Marietta Sands, there on a blind date. They married in 1958 and were together for 52 years.

The Johannson family moved to and settled down in Rochester in 1959, when Ken began playing for the Rochester Mustangs and working in administration at Mayo Clinic. He became a fixture in Rochester’s hockey community, while at the same time working for USA Hockey.

Ken and Gene Campbell became the first head coaches of Lourdes’ program and he helped start a hockey program at Rochester Community College.


Ken became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1961 (“He was very proud to be naturalized and play for the U.S. and contribute to USA Hockey,” John Johannson said). He served as USA Hockey’s first National Coaching Director in the 1970s, developing the organization’s first coaching manual and a second manual, filled with pictures of players demonstrating drills (the players pictured were of his sons, John and Jim, as well as Rochester standouts Eric Strobel and Bruce Aikens).

Ken Johannson later served as the General Manager of the 1979 United States team that went to the World Championships in Russia. He was also the first GM of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team — the “Miracle On Ice” team that included Strobel — before Minneapolis native Ralph Jasinski took over prior to the Lake Placid Games.

“Dad had full employment at Mayo while he was (working for USA Hockey), did a lot of driving back and forth to the Cities,” John Johannson said. “I think he was tired. He had bypass surgery shortly after the Games.

“He was very proud of what he accomplished, but he never put his hand up and said ‘it was me!’ He was extremely proud when they won, and he was there at the start, and me and Jim were there at all the tryouts, handing out shoes and jackets and being stick boys at all the camps.”

John Johannson said his father took a lot of pride in recent years in watching his youngest son, Jim (a 1982 Mayo graduate and two-time U.S. Olympian) rise in the USA Hockey front office.

Jim was the GM for three U.S. teams that won gold medals at the World Junior Championships (2010, 2013, 2017), and he selected the U.S. roster for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, shortly before he passed away unexpectedly in January at age 53.

“He was proud beyond description when I played in the World Juniors and Jimmy played in two World Juniors and two Olympics,” John Johannson said. “He couldn’t be happier than to see his kids wear the USA jersey.”

One of the last times Ken was at a hockey rink came on Aug. 26 in suburban Detroit at the Jim Johannson Memorial Game. The event featured more than 40 NHL players and some of USA Hockey’s best coaches. It was organized by Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin, who got to know Johannson while playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program from 2012-14.

The game raised funds for the Jim Johannson Legacy Fund, which supports the development of the U.S. national teams at all levels; as well as the Ellie Johannson College Fund, which was set up for Jim’s 2-year-old daughter and his wife, Abby.

Ken Johannson was invited on the ice for the ceremonial puck drop.

“The reverence that these NHL stars all showed for my father was incredible,” John Johannson said. “They all paid their own way, took the last week of their summer and came to play in the game because of how they felt about Jimmy.

“They all told dad what a great son he had. ... He worked for 34 years at Mayo and (worked with USA Hockey). That was our summer vacation, going with dad to these camps, me and Jimmy being the demonstrators while he ran the drills. And we thought going to places like Houghton, Mich., was great. To us, it was a home run.”

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