The road to Titletown: Coaches of national champion Gophers got start in south Washington County
Last week, longtime pals Brad Frost and Joel Johnson led the University of Minnesota women's hockey team to a historic season. But not long ago the two friends and coaches were cutting their teeth in south Washington County.
This past Sunday, the Gophers won their second consecutive national championship, beating Boston University, 6-3, at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis to cap a perfect, unprecedented 41-0 season.
"It was a magical run this year," said Frost, the Gophers' head coach. "At the beginning of the year we didn't set out to go 41-0. We didn't even think that was possible, honestly."
No other NCAA women's college hockey team in history has ever finished unbeaten. This year's championship win extended a NCAA-record 49-game winning streak dating back to last season and was the fourth overall national title won by the Gophers women.
Frost said about midway through the season the public began to talk about the unbeaten streak, but it didn't faze the Gophers.
"For us it was just continuing to focus on the process of the day-to-day and trying to win hockey games," he said. "Here we are 41 games later with a national championship, all trying to pinch ourselves to make sure it's real."
Frost, a Toronto native, has lived in Cottage Grove for the past 10 years. Johnson, the team's lead assistant, is a 1992 graduate of Woodbury High School, where he was a three sport standout - hockey, soccer and baseball. Frost and Johnson met at Bethel University, where they were roommates and teammates on the Royals hockey team. After college, both men spent time coaching and teaching at New Life Academy in Woodbury.
"It goes back to our freshman year of college," Johnson said. "With him being from Toronto and me being from Woodbury, he'd come over to my house during some of the breaks from school. We, naturally, got to be good friends."
Frost said the back-to-back championships were even more special because he was able to share them with Johnson.
"We had a great time as assistants together and we're having even more fun now," he said. "It's pretty incredible when you can spend quality time with a buddy and also have the opportunity to impact the lives of young people that you come in contact with as well."
Johnson said he even helped Frost land his first-ever coaching job - leading the volleyball team at New Life.
"While I was at New Life, Brad was looking for a coaching job and I was able to help him get the volleyball coaching job," Johnson said. "When I left New Life as a teacher he took over for me there."
Frost spent two years at New Life, while teaching physical education and health. During that time, he also coached girls hockey at Eagan High School, where U.S. Women's National Team captain and three-time Olympian Natalie Darwitz led way for the Wildcats on the ice.
Frost would later connect with Darwitz, and Johnson, again at the University of Minnesota.
Johnson was an assistant coach at Minnesota from 1999-2004, before leaving the Gophers to coach the men's hockey team at Bethel from 2004-10. In 2000, Johnson again helped Frost land a job - with the Gophers - and the rest is history.
"We were looking for an assistant and I remember telling Laura Halderson that I had a buddy that was a good coach; Brad was at Eagan at the time," Johnson recalled. "We hired Brad and long story short here we are still coaching together."
In his early years at Minnesota, Frost primarily coached the power-play and the forwards, including Darwitz and fellow Olympians Kelly Stephens and Krissy Wendell.
"I have had many high-level coaches throughout my career in hockey and Brad Frost is by far one of the best," Darwitz has said. "His practices were always well-planned and he conducted himself professionally on and off the ice. I believe that he had a lot to do with making me the hockey player and person that I am today."
It was in 2007 when Frost's coaching career took a new turn.
After former Gophers coach Laura Halldorson announced her retirement, Frost was given the job of interim head coach for the 2007-08 season. The Gophers finished 27-7-4 overall and 21-5-2 in the conference that season, which ranked second in the WCHA. The Gophers went on to a NCAA Regional appearance that year. Frost was named the WCHA Coach of the Year and was a finalist for the National Coach of the Year. On April 16, 2008, Frost's interim title was lifted.
Frost's record after six seasons now stands at 186-36-16.
"Joel Maturi gave me the opportunity on an interim basis as a head coach. I was able to do a good job and they hired me back," Frost said. "Here we are six years later. It's kind of surreal looking back now. God has a plan. We don't know that plan all the time. But, I look back and think it's pretty amazing he put me in this position."
Like Frost, Johnson coached at New Life - soccer and baseball - for two years and was also an assistant coach for Park/Woodbury High School during the 1996-97 season.
He said he "always knew" he wanted to be a coach.
"I always enjoyed teaching and being involved in athletics, so physical education and health was a natural fit," Johnson said. "It was something I was pretty set on day one of college."
Johnson has now spent a total of eight seasons on the Minnesota coaching staff. This year's national title was Johnson's fourth with the University of Minnesota women's hockey team. He also coached the Gophers during the 2000, 2004 and 2012 championship seasons.
"It's great," Johnson said. "To win the national championship last year and to do it again this year is certainly quite an accomplishment. Add on top of it to finish undefeated and it's pretty amazing."
Frost and Johnson both said the team's core values - being tough, grateful, disciplined and devoted both on the ice and off the ice - were key to the Gophers' extraordinary run this season.
"The thing this team did better than any other group I've ever coached is they really believed in the values we agreed upon as a group and lived them out every single day," Johnson said. "When things get challenging if you don't have values like toughness and devotion to each other things start to crumble because you don't have a foundation. But, when you have a foundation, other than winning and losing, when things start to go wrong you can weather the storm."
The day after finishing a perfect season, Frost called his team "a special group," but brushed away the question if this was the best college women's hockey team ever.
"I'll leave that for other people to figure out," Frost said. "I think it's really hard to compare different teams in different eras. The team obviously has a lot of talent, but more important was the chemistry they had. They truly did care about each other and played for the person next to them."