Reporting David Elfin
Hall of Famers Rod Langway, Mike Gartner and Scott Stevens didn’t do it. Neither did NHL Trophy winners Alex Ovechkin, Olie Kolzig, Jim Carey or Doug Jarvis.
Only Peter Bondra and Kelly Miller came even within 100 games of the franchise-record 983 games that defenseman Calle Johansson played in a Capitals uniform.
Johansson was in Washington so long that he was a Cap before Kolzig was drafted in 1989 and he remained until 14 months before Ovechkin was drafted first overall in 2004.
And now, the 45-year-old Swede will be working again with Kolzig as an assistant to new coach Adam Oates try to finally lead Ovechkin and Co. to the Stanley Cup that has evaded the franchise since its birth in 1974.
“To win the Stanley Cup with players and coaches that you (go to war) with every day for nine months, that is the absolute, ultimate goal said Johansson, who played with Oates and Kolzig on the 1998 Caps, Washington’s only team to reach the finals. “For me, that’s really unfinished business.”
Johansson was far from the flashiest defenseman during his 14-plus seasons with the Caps. Al Iafrate, Kevin Hatcher, Sergei Gonchar and, at times, Sylvain Cote and Phil Housley were bigger scorers on the Washington blue line. But Johansson, who had a plus-47 defensive rating, usually made the smart play.
“Calle had a high on-ice IQ, quarterbacked the power play,” said Terry Murray, the Caps’ coach from 1990-93. “He was a fearless competitor who brought leadership to the room every day. When a player shows that kind of leadership throughout his career, you know that if they stay in the game, it’ll become a better game because of him.”
Oddly, Johansson, who scouted in Europe for the Caps for a year once he retired for good after a brief stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2003-04, is rejoining the organization two months after his best buddy, Dale Hunter, resigned as its coach. When Hunter would pull pranks such as using a razor blade to separate the uppers from the soles of dozing rookie forward Tim Bergland’s shoes, Johansson would be nearby chuckling at his pal’s antics.
“I’ve always loved (the) Capitals,” said Johansson, who spent a year as an assistant in his native Goteborg but had spurned previous other offers to coach, preferring to announce Swedish and NHL games. “I’ve always wanted to come back … when the situation is right and there’s people around me that I really like and trust … and think hockey the same way I do.”
Namely Oates, whose cerebral approach to the game and two-way style is similar to Johansson’s.
“We got along when we played and we still do,” Johansson said. “Oatsie doesn’t want to sacrifice any defense to become an offensive team. You can do both. If you score five goals, you don’t have to let in four. I might want to tweak a little bit of the defensive play, but we’re going to become a more offensive team (than they were under Hunter). That’s what I like. But he doesn’t want to become a run-and-gun team (like they were under Hunter’s predecessor, Bruce Boudreau). The team is a great hockey team and has great potential so … it was just the perfect situation.”
Not to mention that Johansson’s wife Karin and his two younger kids were “bitter” when they left Washington and are eager to rejoin eldest daughter Rebecca, who works for the Caps.
“Family-wise, it’s all smiles right now,” he said.
Johansson, who was part of some first-rate blue line groups during his tenure with the Caps, smiles when he thinks about working every day with young defensemen Dmitry Orlov (20), John Carlson (22), Karl Alzner (23), Mike Green (26) and Jeff Schultz (26) as well as the grizzled Roman Hamrlik (38).
“The defense has great potential,” said Johansson, who has more points and assists than any Washington defenseman but is just third in goals. “They play pretty much the same way I did. They’re great skaters, good, two-way defensemen. They can easily become the best D-corps in the league.”
Although Johansson has just the one year behind the bench and not even a day doing so in the NHL, he knows his main mission.
“You have to be yourself to earn the players’ trust,” he said. “Don’t think you can put on a façade. They have to know what you’re telling them is the absolute truth. I’ve been with a lot of coaches. I’ve always been fascinated by how they work. I tried to collect the best from every coach.”
And now Johansson’s one of them.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin