by Jim Boyle
Gary Johnston — a teacher, coach and champion of the girls youth hockey movement in Rogers — was recently honored at the State Capitol in St. Paul for his contributions to young girls and women in his community.
He received the “Breaking Barriers and Expanding Boundaries Award” as National Girls and Women in Sports Day, created by the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1987, was celebrated at the State Capitol. He was one of 13 individuals honored.
Johnston, 47, who has a part-time job at the U of M and is otherwise a stay-at-home dad, has been involved in the youth program since 2001.
He coached a team with his daughter Kelsey, who’s now a junior on the varsity team, and currently coaches the U-10 team that includes his daughter Courtney.
He also organizes and conducts introductory clinics each spring and fall for young girls to try hockey and see if they like it before their parents have to make the huge financial commitment that comes with the sport.
“It’s an inexpensive opportunity to come and try the sport,” Johnston says of the clinics.
The cost is $70 for 10 or 12 clinic sessions, and the time and effort it takes to line up some used equipment.
Johnston has even started to put on introductory clinics for mothers and women who want to learn about the game of hockey. They offer a non-intimidating chance for these individuals to learn how to skate and see what the sport is all about.
“It gives them a different perspective once they have been on the ice,” Johnston said
This past fall’s clinics involved 60 girls, about half of which were 8 years of age and under. The other half were primarily 10- to 12-year-olds. Johnston and the coaches who help him with the program have watched young girls go from not being able to skate at all to developing some of the fundamentals that will be key to any success they have in the sport. At the same time they have watched the girls develop a love for the sport.
“It’s so rewarding to see the smiles and to see the kids having fun,” Johnson said. “Everyone wants to win, but participation is so much more important.”
Most girls who go through the clinics continue on with the sport. A few are lost to basketball, but most are hooked, Johnston said.
Tricia Lyngen, the mother of two girl hockey players, nominated Johnston for the award. She describes the Rogers man as a phenomenal example, leader and coach to countless Rogers girls hockey players.
“He is an enormously patient man with a no-nonsense approach to teaching and coaching girls the game of hockey,” Lyngen said.
She credits Johnston with single-handedly elevating the skill level of the girls youth hockey program in Rogers.
Johnston is more modest in his assessment. He refers to himself simply an organizer. He credits a team of coaches who have helped him and the families who have taken an interest in the clinics.
His girls got their start in Rogers youth hockey back about the time that the community broke away from Elk River youth hockey.
So the most imminent need for the youth hockey program at that time was sheer numbers. Johnston ran his first clinic in 2005 at ice arenas in Elk River and Monticello in hopes of addressing this. Eventually, Rogers opened its own rink in 2007 and the clinics have been run out of the Rogers Activity Center ever since.
In recent years, Johnston has opened up a rink he built in his backyard for additional opportunities for young kids to learn the game of hockey. He would ask the players of the girls he coached to invite their sisters to the homemade rink that was made complete with lights.
Lyngen, who has had two daughters go through his clinics and has herself taken part in the clinic for moms, says Johnston’s influence on the Rogers girls youth hockey program has been immeasurable. She credits his generosity of time and spirit and coaching ability.
This coming year, the Rogers girls youth hockey traveling program is expected to expand to three teams.
“He has the perfect balance of toughness, and recognizes what each girl needs to improve her hockey game,” she said. “He knows how to skate the girls hard in order for them to advance rapidly, and such swift learning has led to the girls of Rogers excelling and loving the sport of hockey.”
Johnston likes all of the ancillary benefits that come with playing hockey, be it learning about team work, hard work or how to get along with others. He says there are also lessons to be learned in learning about sportsmanship and perseverance.
But most important of all to him is girls in the youth hockey program are having fun.
“Players would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench of a winning team,” he said. “We need to develop them all.”
Johnston and others help do that one clinic at a time.