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Coaches Plan to Keep it Simple at CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game

09/25/2013, 3:30pm EDT
By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine

For a minute there, Joe Mullen was starting to get worried. After listening to Mark Johnson talk about his plans for preparing his team for the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, the rival coach began to wonder if he was coming to Pittsburgh woefully unprepared.

"I plan on bringing four hours of video that we will break down on Wednesday night. Then we will let them get a few hours of sleep so they can digest all that information before they get up and go play," Johnson said during Tuesday's teleconference. 

As Mullen began to sweat, the head coach of the University of Wisconsin' women's team came clean with his real plan of attack.

"In these types of games, less is more," said Johnson, a veteran of such showcases as both a player and coach. "My biggest job will be to get out of the way."

Mullen couldn't agree more.

"I'll give them a little direction and then let them play," said the assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers.

With so much raw talented amassed in the respective locker rooms, that's probably a good idea.

A total of 26 players who will skate in tomorrow night's game are projected by NHL Central Scouting to be chosen in the first three rounds of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, including seven in the first round.

"I'm excited to coach these great players and to see them compete against such top talent," Johnson said.

It's a far cry from when both Mullen and Johnson broke into the league. After a stellar career at Boston College, Mullen wasn't even drafted when he went pro in 1979. Of course, the native of the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City went on to prove his detractors wrong as he became the first American player to score more than 500 goals (502) in the NHL. 

Along the way he was a member of three Stanley Cup winning teams, including with the 1991 and 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins, which was coached by Johnson's father, "Badger" Bob Johnson.

"We've had a lot of history and he's been a good friend over the years," Mullen said.

Even after he was the leading scorer on the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" squad, Johnson faced an uphill battle to earn an NHL roster spot.

"When Joe and I were coming up there were not a lot of Americans in the NHL. Luckily, after 1980 teams began to give American players a good look," said Johnson, who would go on to play in 11 NHL seasons and rack up 508 points.
"I think you're seeing the byproduct of that in the number of kids who have drafted, and the growth of hockey in non-traditional areas like Pittsburgh."

With only one brief on-ice practice before the puck drops at 7 p.m. Thursday, at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, the coaches will have their hands full just learning the names of the 20 players on their rosters.

"The message to these kids is that we want them to play hard and don't worry about anything but having fun," Mullen said.

The two coaches will have the help of Danton Cole and John Gruden, who coach at the  National Team Development Program, who will serve as assistant coaches.

Heading back to the Steel City where both head coaches have so many fond memories is part of the allure of taking the time away from their full-time teams so close to the start of the season. But when USA Hockey came calling one more time, these two proud American players answered the bell once again.

With that said, Johnson is happy to stay behind the bench and keep the focus where it belongs, on the 40 young American players who are looking to showcase their talents on NHL ice.

"I'm just glad that I don't have to take part in a shootout after the game against Joey Mullen because I don't think I'd do too well."

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