When they got the call: U.S. players honor Johannson's message

Jim Johannson's impact was most plainly seen in the results of the recent World Junior Championship tournaments. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- In front of an empty stall inside the United States men's locker room at the Gangneung Hockey Center sits a chair with a blue jersey draped over it. Ironed in bright white lettering is the No. 18 and the name JOHANNSON. For the 25 players brought together from all across the world to represent Team USA, it's a constant reminder that their architect isn't here.

Jim Johannson, the executive director of USA Hockey, died in his sleep at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Jan. 21. He was 53. It was Johannson, along with head coach Tony Granato, who built this squad, the first U.S. team since 1994 without current NHL players.

For all but the biggest of hockey fans, it's a roster of unknowns, a twisted mix of aging veterans searching for one last moment of hockey glory and promising youngsters barely old enough to drink. But they all share one thing in common: They were brought together by that one man, through one phone call. When the moment came, some of them cried, some fell over, most were speechless. It never would have been like this with NHL players, which is what made the moment so special.

Here are a few stories about when these players' lives were forever changed, when they received that call from the same man -- Jim Johannson.

Chad Kolarik, 32, forward

Current club: Adler Mannheim of the DEL (Germany)
Hometown: Abbington, Pennsylvania
NHL experience: Six games
Last NHL game: 2011

"I was in my apartment in Mannheim. I had missed the call, but JJ texted me and asked me to call him back when I had a second. As soon as you see that message, you drop everything. First thing he tells me is that this has been one of the greatest days in his career at USA Hockey. At that point, you don't know what he's going to say. He tells me, 'You've been selected to play for the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team.' I immediately dropped to my knees. I literally fell down, and just started tearing up. My wife was in the kitchen. As soon as I dropped to my knees and started crying, she knew. It was just amazing. First thing I did was called my mom. Dad was at work. But I talked to him later and it was cool to hear his voice. He's not an emotional guy, but you could tell -- he was proud."

Noah Welch, 35, defenseman

Current club: Vaxjo Lakers, Swedish League (Sweden)
Hometown: Brighton, Massachusetts
NHL experience: 75 games
Last NHL game: 2011

"I was suspended for that night, so I was outside building a snowman with my family in Sweden. We were told we'd find out in late December, but this call came earlier. It was a number I didn't know. I honestly thought it was the IRS actually after me for taxes or something. I don't know why, but I've gotten audited three years in a row. I didn't want to answer it, but for some reason, I did. And it was Jim Johannson. He says to me, 'How is your day going?' As soon as he said that, I started smiling, because I don't think you would follow that up with, 'You didn't make the team.' ... But in my head I'm thinking, 'Get on with it.' And then he just said, 'I wanted to call and tell you that you made the team.'

"I couldn't talk. I was shocked. I just didn't know what to say. I think I said, 'Thank you.' I hope I said thank you. My wife picked up on it. She knew it was JJ. She saw the look on my face. I just didn't know what to say, and then I hung up and my wife ran over and tackled me on the snow. I remember she said, 'Dad just made the Olympics!' and then my son jumped on me and there was this big pile, right there in the snow in Sweden. I'll never ever forget it."

Jim Slater, 35, forward

Current club: HC Fribourg-Gotteron of the National League (Switzerland)
Hometown: Lapeer, Michigan
NHL experience: 584 games
Last NHL game: 2015

"I was back home in Michigan. I play in Switzerland and we had five days off, so I came home because my wife and daughter still live in Michigan. I had my Swiss phone and I couldn't get any phone calls, but I could receive text messages. And there was a message from Jimmy Johannson saying to give him a call. It said it was going to be a good call. So, I grabbed my wife's phone right away, made the call and he just said, 'Slates, you're on the Olympic team.' We talked for about five minutes. I told him how thankful and grateful I was. Then I got off the phone and told my wife. We started jumping up and down, my 3-year-old daughter got into it. Right away, we called my parents, and I let my daughter break the news to my them. To hear her tell my parents, 'My daddy is going to be an Olympian,' was really the most special thing. It's something she probably won't remember, but something I'll always take with me. That's right up there with my first NHL game, being drafted, my first NHL goal. It's just so special."

Bobby Butler, 30, forward

Current club: Milwaukee Admirals, AHL
Hometown: Marlborough, Massachusetts
NHL experience: 130 games
Last NHL game: 2014

"I was in Milwaukee. On Dec. 27, I had a game. Coach Granato came to watch me play. He said afterward he'd let me know in the next few days. So, the next day, I'm in the locker room; I'm there for early training, just hanging out. I've got my Apple Watch on, and it starts buzzing. I look down and it's Jim Johannson, so I book it to my cell phone probably 50 feet away. ... He says, 'I want you to know that when we announce the team on Jan. 1, you're going to be one of the Olympians who is announced.'

"Immediately, I got the chills. I mean, I still get them every time I tell the story or even think about that moment. Then I FaceTime'd my wife. I told her I was an Olympian. She's like, 'What did you say?' I told her, 'You heard me.' And she goes, 'I want to hear you say it again.' So I did, and she was so proud of me. I just thanked her for letting me be a big kid and play hockey for a living.

"From there, I called my dad and told him to come to practice. He had flown in the previous afternoon. ... He wanted to be there either way, whether I made the team or I didn't. So, then he came to practice and I surprised him. You probably saw the video. From there, the moment my wife hung up the phone, she called and got us a babysitter. That night, we went out to dinner -- me, my wife, my dad and her parents. It was pretty special."


U.S. Olympian shares news of making hockey team with father.

Bobby Butler of the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals shares the news with his father that he was named to the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

David Leggio, 33, goaltender

Current club: EHC Red Bull Munchen, DEL (Germany)
Hometown: Williamsville, New York
NHL experience: None.

"I was in the park across the street from my apartment [in Munich]. I was there with my dog and my son. I was hoping that was the day they were going to call. [U.S. assistant coach] Keith Allain [called first]. He called and was making some small talk, how's the weather, this and that. And I'm like, please tell me what's going to happen! So he told me and the emotion just goes through you.

"My son is 1½ and I just picked him up and ran home. My wife was just coming home from the store. I tried to beat her upstairs, but we got in the elevator at the same time, so we went upstairs and then I told her. Then, Jim called later -- he was so happy for me. It's hard to think about it now. He was just such an awesome guy. One of the best you'll ever meet in hockey. And you think about how much he loved telling everybody and making those calls. You don't need any additional motivation in the Olympics, but he's the reason we're all here. We want to do this for him and his family. We will honor his legacy."

Ryan Donato, 21, center

Current club: Harvard University
Hometown: Scituate, Massachusetts
NHL experience: None.

"I was at school, in the library with one of my teammates studying for an exam. I got the call from Jim, so I answer it and I sort of whispered, 'Can you just wait a second? I'm in the library.' He starts to laugh. So, I go outside and he just said, 'We selected you for the team.' All my emotions just sort of came into one. My breath was taken away. Literally taken away. I told him thank you. I went back into the library and my buddy goes, 'Was that the call I think it was?' I told him it was, but that he couldn't tell anyone anything. Then I called my mom and dad and told them. I thanked them for everything."

Brian Gionta, 39, forward

Hometown: Rochester, New York
NHL Experience: 1,006 games
Last NHL game: 2017

"I was at home, with my wife. We were in the kitchen. JJ calls and told me he not only wanted me to be part of the team, but he also wanted me to be the captain. It was a pretty special moment. My wife knew. She knew from caller ID who was calling. And she could tell by my reaction that I was on the team. But then I had the added bonus of being able to tell her I was captain. It was pretty special for both of us."

James Wisniewski, 33, defenseman

Current club: Kassel Huskies DEL2 (Germany)
Hometown: Canton, Michigan
NHL experience: 552 games
Last NHL game: 2015

"I was at home in Castle, Germany. It was three days after Christmas. My family was in town visiting, they were still fighting jet lag. It was probably 9:30 in the morning. I'm lying in bed with my two daughters and my wife next to me. At some point, I look at my phone and I see I have a missed call and a text message from Jim Johannson. The message said, 'Call me. It's going to be a fun one.' So I'm like, 'Whoa.'

"I immediately start getting all sorts of anxiety. The shakes. The sweats. I got a little emotional. I wake my wife up and show her the text and she goes, 'Are you s----ing me?' Then I woke my dad up. He jumps out of bed, 'Are you serious?' We got up, poured some coffee. I was nervous to call JJ back. I don't know why. Eventually, I called him, we make small talk. He tells me he's having the time of his life making these phone calls. And then, he says, 'I'd like you to know you made the cut and you'll be representing our country in 2018.' Total silence. And he's like, 'Are you there?' I told him it meant so much coming from him. From there, well, it was time to celebrate. We didn't have a game the next day, or the day after, so let's just say I had a good time, a really good time."

Matt Gilroy, 33, defenseman

Current club: Jokerit, KHL (Finland)
Hometown: Bellmore, New York
NHL experience: 225 games
Last NHL game: Last NHL game: 2014

"I was in Northern Finland. We had a few days off, and my wife was in town, so we went to the North Pole, basically. No service, the phone wasn't really working. We were sitting at a restaurant and I looked down at my phone and it was JJ calling. At that time, I knew if I got that call, I knew what it was going to be about. I stepped away and picked it up, talked to him and the first thing he brought up was, 'Matty, this has been the best day in USA Hockey for me, calling you guys. Congratulations. you're an Olympian.' And you talk about excitement? Just all the emotions racing through you. How am I going to get there? When does it start? I want to go now! I was with my wife, which was special. I walked back to my wife and she kept looking back at me like, 'What's going on?' I gave her the blank face and then I told her, 'I'm going to the Olympics.'"

Bobby Sanguinetti, 29, defenseman

Current club: HC Lugano, National League (Switzerland)
Hometown: Trenton, New Jersey
NHL experience: NHL experience: 45 games
Last NHL game: Last NHL game: 2013

"I was home. I had just gotten up from a pregame nap, so I missed the original call. Jim texted me, asking me to give him a call back when I can. I didn't know exactly what it was, but I quickly called him right back. I didn't waste any time. Just to hear him say I made the team was an incredible feeling. You can't describe it. I don't even know what I said after that. You try not to get too emotional or too excited on the phone. You want to hold it together. And then you hang up and everything comes out of you. My wife was out with my son, so I immediately called her and told her the news. Then I called my parents. Two special phone calls I'll never forget."

Ryan Zapolski, 31, goaltender

Current club: Jokerit (KHL), Finland
Hometown: Erie, Pennsylvania
NHL experience: None

"I was in my apartment in Helsinki. My wife and I were getting ready for dinner when he called. I saw it was him and took the call in the bedroom. He just congratulated me and said how honored he was to be making these calls. It was really special. I probably said thank you 10 or 15 times. It was emotional. I felt like I was going to cry. I wanted to cry, but I didn't. There were just all these emotions.; you don't know how to process it. Then I came out of the bedroom and told my wife. I gave her a nice hug. Something I'll never forget."

Brian O'Neill, 29, center

Current club: Jokerit (KHL), Finland
Hometown: Yardley, Pennsylvania
NHL experience: 22 games
Last NHL game: 2016

"I was actually at a team event at a casino in Helsinki. It's about 2 p.m. and I have a missed call. I knew it was his number. My heart just sank. I assumed it was good, but you don't know. I was sitting next to Zapolski. He already got a call. Jim says, 'Brian, you're on the Olympic team.' When you hear those words, you just go into shock. You never imagine that call and so you don't know what to do. First thing I did was call my dad. He was taken aback. And then I got back to the poker tournament. We did pretty well. I had quite the day."

Will Borgen, 21, defenseman

Current club: St. Cloud State University
Hometown: Moorhead, Minnesota

"I was at home in Moorhead. It was Christmas break, so I was home for a bit. Bob Motzko, who coached world juniors with Jimmy, they both called me on my way home from skating with the local high school kids. I pick up the phone and Bob is basically laughing to himself. They told me right away. 'You made it.' I freaked out. I called my dad. I told my mom and my brothers and sisters who were out of town. That night I went out with my friends. I couldn't tell them. I knew they couldn't keep the secret, but I was celebrating in my head."