Johnson, the most successful coach in women’s college hockey history and USA Hockey Hall of Famer, needs six victories to become the only member of the 600-win club (594-113-53, .816). Wisconsin has won a record seven NCAA championships during his tenure, including three of the last five. UW also owns 18 Western Collegiate Hockey Association crowns, nine each from the regular season and playoff tournament.
But Johnson, who just turned 66, doesn’t see himself coaching into his 70s. He’s been a prominent figure on the local hockey scene since he was a teenager at Madison Memorial High School. He starred at UW, became an international legend by way of an Olympic gold medal in 1980, played 11 decorated seasons in the NHL and was an assistant coach for the Wisconsin men’s program before taking over the women’s team at his alma mater in 2002.
Johnson and his wife, Leslie, have five married children and eight grandchildren. The last four or five years have been about planning for life after decades of dancing to hockey’s beat. All that packing and moving while playing for five NHL teams as well as a two-year stint in Europe. All those recruiting trips, road games, practices and other coaching demands. All the ups, downs, triumphs, doubts and sacrifices.
The Johnsons believe they have found their next life. Which brings us to a peaceful, secluded tract of land in the Town of Cross Plains. The rolling terrain is surrounded by a cornfield and a large plot of prairie grasses. Eagles, hummingbirds, deer, blue birds, coyotes, blue jays and turkeys are on the list of viewing attractions.
It’s where Agape Ranch is taking shape. In Christianity, “agape’’ means “the highest form of love and charity’’ and the “love of God for man and of man for God.’’ It defines a ministry the Johnsons, who have been married 43 years, want to share with as many people as possible as soon as possible. It’s all about experiencing the power of God’s love through animals, land and people.
“My marriage has consisted of hockey – full-time hockey – for a long, long time,’’ Mark said. “One of my things is why not do something that Leslie’s passionate about, that she enjoys, that she gets up in the morning and loves to do?
“If we’re able to do that in a way that we can give back and affect peoples’ lives in a positive way, whether it’s giving them hope or just loving them for a while, that’s a good thing.
“If you’re passionate about something and you get up in the morning excited, then you’re probably doing the right thing whatever that is.’’
For the last 10 years, Leslie has been motivated to find an outlet for her short list of passions.
“I love horses, I love kids, I love God,’’ she said. “How would I incorporate the three?’’