December 27, 2019
By Tom Coombe
Ben Johnson had what could best be described as a golden trip to Italy.
For the second time in 12 years, the Elyite came home from the Deaflympics with a gold medal, this time as an assistant coach with the U.S. Deaflympic team.
Johnson, who is in his fifth season as head hockey coach at Ely High School, was in Italy from Dec . 7-21, and the U.S. team clinched the gold medal with a 4-1 win over Canada.
In the process, Johnson made a bit of history as the first person to win a gold medal both as a player and a coach in Deaflympic hockey.
Johnson, who is hearing impaired and legally deaf, won a gold medal as a player as part of the U.S. team in 2007, at the Deaflympics in Salt Lake City.
“To win a gold medal a lot has to take place,” said Johnson. “It’s not handed to you and it was definitely earned. Our team worked hard that entire time. For me, it was a very special gold medal.”
Johnson, a former Duluth East standout during his playing days, has been involved in the Deaflympics first as a player and more recently as a coach, thanks to an invitation from the late Jeff Sauer, a former University of Wisconsin coach.
“I’ve been around this for the last 20 years, and with my coaching background, they selected me to be on the staff,” said Johnson.
Johnson joined his former teammate Tony McGaughey as an assistant coach and aided head coach Joe Gotfryd with U.S. team that included 16 players that were part of previous international competitions.
The U.S. team ranged in age from 16-34 and players came from 14 states.
“Our captain played professional hockey and a lot of these guys are playing college hockey or junior hockey around the country,” said Johnson. “A few of our younger guys played high school hockey.”
The team came together in Italy, practicing in Milan and taking part in an exhibition game against a professional team there.
That led up to the 19th Winter Deaflympics, which took place Dec. 12-21 in Valtellina Valchiavenna.
The U.S. team had its eye on improving on a bronze medal performance four years ago at Russia and made good on that goal.
There were pool play victories over Russia, Kazakhstan and Finland, and the U.S. team avenged a loss to Canada with a gold-medal game triumph.
“We only got two weeks together to prepare for this type of event and you have guys from all over the country playing on different teams and playing with different systems,” said Johnson. “But they got together and bonded as a team.”
Johnson said the experience involved more than just hockey.
He coached youth hockey players as well during his time in Italy, and noted the Deaflympics provide a positive example to the hearing impaired or those with other disabilities.
“There are little kids around the country that are deaf, that are hearing impaired,” said Johnson. “The deaf nation or deaf culture is pretty neat to be part of. All of these athletes are competitors and it’s an honor to be part of something that inspires people to work hard and most important be a good person in your community.”
The team operates under the guidelines of USA Hockey and the USA Deaf Sports Federation. To qualify, athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 dB in their “better ear.” Hearing aids, cochlear implants and the like are not allowed during competition to ensure all athletes play on the same level.
The U.S. team is operated by the nonprofit American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, which was founded in 1973 by NHL Hall of Famer Stan Mikita. The association supports deaf and hard of hearing athletes to develop confidence and self-esteem while building life skills through the game of hockey. More information can be found online at www.ahiha.org.
Johnson’s involvement dates includes playing on the 2007 U.S. team that won a gold medal at Salt Lake City, where he led the team in scoring.
In addition to his work with the Deaflympic team, Johnson has also been actively involved in sled hockey, hosting a sled hockey camp in Ely for players confined to wheel chairs.
Back home just prior to Christmas, Johnson is switching gears and will be back behind the bench for the Timberwolves this week, as they take part in the North Shore Holiday Tournament, which started Thursday and runs through Saturday at Silver Bay and Two Harbors.
“I missed the team terribly,” Johnson said. “It will be fun to get back on the ice with our own team and move forward on a positive note.”