Minnesota High School Hockey Legend Johnny Pohl
St. Louis Park, MN - The story of Johnny Pohl, a Minnesota High Hockey Legend, was developed in Red Wing Wing, Minnesota. The high school hockey superstar rounded out a scintillating career that placed him second all time in points with 378, first in assists with 234 and eighth in goals with 144. Johnny Pohl’s story goes beyond his prolific point production that transcends his dynamic personality and the player he was. Johnny Pohl put an entire town on the map while captivating the state of Minnesota with his infectious play.
Pohl was a player that oozed love for hockey, community, and team. In effect, as a player, Johnny Pohl embodied everything that is right about high school sports and high school hockey. He was and still is a perpetual student of the game that implemented everything his eyes took in and his mind processed to success. His ability to perceive things translated to his game that brought fans to the edge of their seats, whether it be at home in Red Wing or on the road. People came to see Johnny Pohl play hockey and were left with the impression that they were in the midst of one of Minnesota High School Hockey’s greatest players and competitors of all-time who captured the 1998 Mr. Hockey Award.
John Pohl, as he is known these days, is the current athletic director at Hill-Murray High School. The position would be the same one his father held at Red Wing High School as John Pohl has gone full circle from being a high school, college, and professional player to working in academics and sports that helped pave the way for his amazing journey in hockey.
There would be no story of Johnny Pohl and Red Wing Hockey if it were not for the path his father Jim took that began in the Highland Park area of St. Paul. The elder Pohl grew up in St. Paul, and in the late fifties, hockey was taking hold in the Twin Cities. Jim Pohl was surrounded by a group of friends and fellow hockey players that would be lifelong friends and influences including Terry Srkypek. After attending Cretin High School, Pohl explored the potential vocation of becoming a Priest and entered the Seminary.
The run in the Seminary lasted about six months and Pohl decided to turn his attention to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota where he reunited with Skrypek and a number of other Cretin players to attend school and play college hockey. It wound up shaping his professional life that centered around education and hockey. Jim began his teaching career in Rochester at Lourdes High School where he taught and coached with Ken Johannson for four years. He assisted at White Bear Mariner after teaching at John Glenn Middle School in North St. Paul for a year as the opportunity at Red Wing opened up.
John Pohl recalled the steps his father and mother Joanne took to land in Red Wing. “He got offered the job to start the program in Red Wing and he also got offered a job in Faribault. I think he had driven through Red Wing a lot when he was going to Winona from St. Paul. He took the job at Red Wing to start the program and my parents moved there. My mom became a County Attorney and they had the four of us. My dad started the program, I want to say in 1975, and for 8 years, they never had a home rink until 1983,”
JIm Pohl started the Red Wing hockey program from scratch, including not having an arena, and he was willing to put in miles on the road to drive to Hastings and as far as River Falls, WI to conduct practices early in the morning for the Red Wing Winger High School team. Jim worked with the appropriate people to eventually get the arena built and ready for 1983 and the legend of George A. Bergwall Arena began.
Hockey has a unique way that players and coaches “paying it forward” and in Jim Pohl’s case, there were plenty of people in his life from childhood through is coaching and administrative years that impacted his love of the game that clearly passed from him to his four sons John, Mark, Mike, Tom, and countless others in the Red Wing hockey community and beyond.
“We were products of the age where it was starting to grow, even in the Twin City area,” Jim Pohl recalled of hockey back in the day. “Back when I played my youth everything was in the late fifties, and I was blessed with some really good people all along the way. You get certain people that act as mentors and hockey players gravitate toward them to see what they can learn. Ironically enough, I was brought up by and tutored by some good coaches I had at the college level that I worked with in my early years of coaching and one thing led to another as formulating that.”
Good leaders always learn from those around them while surrounding themselves with quality people. Jim Pohl did just that and things became easier for him and Red Wing hockey when the arena was built.
“Red Wing itself never had hockey and didn’t have a rink for the first nine years we had high school hockey,” Coach Pohl said. “It was such a joy to get our own building and then once we got the building, we could implement and ask questions of those people who had gone before you. One of my mentors was Willard Ikola and he was always open. My teammate and classmate and one of my best friends Terry Srkypek was at Hill-Murray. I was blessed with some good coaches around me: Donny Sautzer at Hastings, Don Joseph at River Falls, and Jim McNeil at St. Mary’s. You just try to sponge and get everything you can out of them. My first job was in Rochester at Rochester Lourdes. I had the benefit of working under Kenny Johansson and then working with Gene Sack and Lorne Grosso. Everything from how to organize a program to teaching skills to learning how to handle people, how to handle your community to understand the game, all these people had a part in it.”
It’s been known that coaches' sons can be spotted a mile away on the ice. Oftentimes, they possess vision for the game and are viewed as “smart players” that become a bi-product of studying and watching what is happening on the rink watching games and practices with their fathers before they can even play. Johnny Pohl and his three brothers all got their start on skates at young ages.
Jim Pohl recalled when Johnny was 2 ½ or 3 years old taking off on the ice that was quite unexpected during a Thanksgiving day skate. “You know, we used to go up to my mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving and when we were waiting for the Turkey to go, the kids were rambunctious in the house,” JIm Pohl said. “I would take them down to this rink by our house. There were kids there for free skate. I had only worked with him once, trying to get him to go from dot to dot, work some balance and edge. He was two and half and he was turning three the next June. I got him out there with the kids from the neighborhood and all of the sudden he just kind of took off. He mimicked and watched whatever they did and as time went on he would do the same.”
Watching, perceiving, and executing was a key theme in what made John Pohl the player he would become. As he went through his formative years, attending practices and games were a part of life for the Pohl boys. As the oldest, Johnny was able to take full advantage of time with dad at the rink. John noted that his dad coached high school until he was in sixth grade and wound up taking the Athletic Director job at Red Wing High School.
Jim pointed out that John was always a student of the game from the very beginning. “John was always a student of the game as was Mark, Mike and Tom,” he said. “Being the oldest, he was the first to go with dad to practices and first to go to the clinics, when I was working clinics. He was oftentimes the last one to go to bed after a game. We were always talking about the games. We would have pizza at the house, the boys and I and talk about the games. They would ask questions. I think their dedication and love for the game transformed a lot of their buddies and kids in the neighborhood. One thing leads to another and kids started gravitating toward the game.”
John recalled that Jim coached for 18 years and retired after John’s sixth grade year. His parents also divorced three years or so prior to that and it played a factor in drawing the boys closer with hockey. It also may have dictated that Jim take a different position for work as well, impacting his decision to continue coaching. “Somewhere when I was in second or third grade, my parents got divorced and I am the oldest of four boys. I was like 8 or 9 and Mark was maybe 8, Mike and Tom were like 4 and 3. I think my dad needed another job to get some more money and I think he saw us coming up too and he had talked a lot about to other people who had to coach their own kids in hockey the disaster that can be. He stepped aside when I was in sixth grade and became AD.”
Mark pointed out that his mother Joanne wound up driving in some cases, four boys to four different team functions in one day and did it for the boys.
Prior to Jim moving away from coaching, Johnny had the opportunity to skate with the varsity team a few times as a sixth grader and clearly enjoyed the experience. “My brothers and I all started playing really young. Once or twice when I was in sixth grade I was able to fill in on the varsity because they were missing a kid or two at practice and he would just bring me along so I got to play on the fourth line at practice twice as a sixth grader, kind of a nice perk,” Pohl said with a smile.
Younger brother Mark recognized John’s hockey IQ when they were young and said, “When he was young, he was a very intelligent player. I think that exposure to my dad and his coaching, that made him a natural playmaker. In time, he turned himself into a goal scorer from having created enough opportunities for himself. The interesting thing with Johnny is that he’s one of those players that continually got better from pee wee’s to bantam’s to high school, to college. He never stopped working and never stopped trying to improve. A lot of guys peak at early ages or a lot of guys get complacent. He never did. He just continued to develop and work on skills to continually make himself a better hockey player.”
Mr. Hockey 1998
High school hockey, a big deal
It is difficult to have four boys within five and a half years of each other and not have a competitive household. “We all played growing up and my dad’s house had a pretty good size basement that we just absolutely destroyed,” Johnny said. “We would play floor hockey, every day, all day. My brother Mark and I used to make our own Minnesota State Tournament, my dad was big into high school and he would get us all this information, and used to do all eight section tournaments of floor hockey and it would come down to we would have a state tournament. It was like high school hockey for us really big because growing up in Red Wing we didn’t have cable tv, I think I went to one North Star game in my life. I went to one Gopher game before I was a junior in high school but I probably went to 15 high school games a year. My entire goal was just to play for the Wingers and to play in the state tournament.”
When asked to recall the legendary floor hockey games, the stories flowed form brother Mark who said, “What I can remember is we had four boys which matched up as a pretty nice two-on-two matchup. Our earliest hockey memories start from playing floor hockey in the basement and having to compete at that level. Dad would bring us all to summer camps that he would work at and we never really knew anything different. We had learned to skate at the age of three and basically, it always just felt like something we just did. The fact that we would bring it home and spend time moving pop cans around the kitchen table to learn the game, it just all kind of happened naturally and organically and was never pushed on us. It just became part of what we did.”
The competition between brothers developed a compete level like no other. “I give his brothers credit for that,” Jim observed. “Boy, I’ll tell you you didn’t want to go downstairs when they were playing. They competed to the death but they were brothers. I give a lot of that to that and it’s in our natures and they loved to play the game and they loved to compete.”
That drive and passion for high school hockey from Jim was shared with his son’s at the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament, serving as a launching pad for John and his brothers to realize their dreams.
“My dad was a coach and before cell phones and the internet, the State Tournament was like a huge convention,” Johnny said of the state tournament experiences he and his brothers enjoyed. “All of his buddies were up there. He used to take us out of school on the Thursday of the state tournament and I remember it so vividly. My brothers and I went to St. Joe’s Elementary in Red Wing, he would come and we would run out of there and drive to St. Paul and we would stay at my grandma’s house in St. Paul, maybe like five miles from the St. Paul Civic Center. My brother Mark and I would go to the afternoon session. You would probably never do this now, but he would let us just go wherever we wanted. We would just run around the St. Paul Civic Center and watch Hill-Murray, Jefferson, Richfield, Cloquet, and all these teams.”
With a big personality, the young John Pohl did not shy away from the camera as he began a bit of a tradition while at the state tournament. “You know how they used to interview a guy coming off the ice with Tony Parker for channel four between periods? it was my goal to get in the shot on a bunch of those tournaments, probably like the late 80’s, early 90’s, “John said with a laugh. “I’m in the background just waving at the camera, trying to get on TV in the state tournament. I think with exception to the years I played professionally, I probably have been to every state tournament since 1986 or something like that.”
Mark suggested that the four brothers benefited from their dad’s involvement in the game and it was something they understood was a big part of their lives and who they are today. “We were pretty fortunate that our dad was a high school hockey coach and we grew up with a mom who was all in,” Mark said. “I think the romance and pageantry of playing high school hockey in general was instilled in us that at a young age after having been a witness to it all, I don’t think any of us, Johnny in particular, ever really lost sight of that. When his time came, I think he was as prepared as any person can be and I think he really appreciated every moment of it.”
Timing is everything
Humility is a key part of John Pohl’s fabric and when discussing his life in hockey and the things that he achieved. Pohl points to timing and location for how things worked out for him. It can be said in today’s youth sports culture that people believe the better the team you are with the better you are. Pohl proves that is not always the case and that it was about being the big fish while making others around you better. He played four seasons of varsity hockey at Red Wing High School and his team qualified for the state tournament all four seasons.
“I made varsity as a ninth grader and got super lucky that we made the state tournament,” Johnny said. “It was incredible, just an awesome experience for Red Wing. I think the book is called ‘Outliers’ where the whole book just talks about the timing of things. Mark Zuckerberg would not be a billionaire if he was born today because somebody would have come up with Faceobook and the Beatles wouldn't have been the Beatles because they hit it at the right time. I totally got to play high school hockey at the right time in Red Wing for sure. It’s pre-internet, pre-cellphone, pre-Twitter, pre-Snapchat, and there was nothing to do. Every home game was literally sold out and it was packed. I remember just being so nervous for my first game at home. I had been to probably 100 of them as a kid and to play in front of that and to have a ton of success was awesome. Back in the 90’s there wasn’t a ton to do for kids, especially in a small town like Red Wing. On a Friday night if the basketball team wasn’t at home, they would be at our game. That was an amazing experience. I got to play in the state tournament four times which was absolutely awesome and finished in no particular order 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. We got really lucky that we got to always stay in St. Paul and we never had to go to the consolation bracket. I think when we beat Warroad for the state championship in ‘97 there were probably 9,000 people and I will be you six or seven thousand were from Red Wing. I was super lucky to come through the time I did. We had a good group of guys, a really good group of players and the timing of everything was just perfect.”
Pohl noted that had he grown up in a larger community, he would not have had the opportunities to become the two-way player he was with playmaking, goal scoring and situational play. He parlayed that into a four-year run at the University of Minnesota that was impressive. Had he not had the chance to play in the environment he had, Pohl was convinced he would not have been a Golden Gopher at the NCAA Division I level let alone play in the NHL.
“Had I grown up on Edina, I would never have played for the Gophers, no chance because I would have been a B player my first year, maybe made the A team my second year,” Pohl opined. “In Red Wing, I had the puck on my stick my entire life growing up. I got to quarterback the power play when I was a ninth grader. If I’m at Edina, I’m playing bantams and maybe by my junior year I get to be on the power play. The period of time when I came through and the area I got to grow up in was perfect.”
A thing that stands out about Pohl is that he never viewed himself as a player who played with outward passion or possessed a mind blowing skill level that was the envy of all. What he had though, was the ability to understand the game and use the tools he developed in his basement and at the rink that fused his compete level, hands, feet, eyes, and mind into an incredible hockey player.
“I have no clue where any of my attributes come from, positive or negative,” Pohl said. “I have never thought of myself as incredibly passionate. I always liked hockey and I know this is going to sound weird but I played hockey growing up because my brothers played and because that is what my friends did. I went to St. Joe’s Elementary School and there were fourteen kids in my class, none of them played hockey. My friends were my hockey teammates. I got lucky when I grew up in Red Wing because I played with great friends. When I got to high school, those guys were my best friends. I don’t know if it was really passion or being the oldest of four boys all five and a half years apart. If I played with passion at the state tournament, you should have seen the floor hockey games and the touch football games in the backyard and the one-on-one on the eight foot basketball hoop, or once we got older on the golf course. It’s just kind of what we did. We didn’t really play a ton of video games. It was just the four boys and we had a different set up because our parents were divorced. Every other night we would move houses. We would be at our dad’s house on Monday and Wednesday and we would stay at our mom’s house on Tuesdays and Thursdays so we were always kind of traveling together. We always had each other and we were really close and still are. It’s almost like two sets of twins, boys and all that testosterone and hyperness, it just kind of creates what it does.”
The Red Wing Wingers became the biggest show in town and game night was the place to be at Bergwall Arena. George Nemanich was named head coach of the Wingers after serving as Jim Pohl’s assistant. The challenge was real for Nemanich who was working through some lean times in the win column. Nemanich and his boss, the elder Pohl, knew help was on its way in the coming years.
“My first season was ‘92-’93 and I knew the Pohl boys because I had been on Jim’s staff,” Nemanich recalled. “I knew these guys when they were really young and they were coming up through the ranks. Jim Pohl’s line to me as we were getting on the bus after getting our rear ends handed to us by Lakeville he said, ‘Hey, every dog has his day, just remember that,’ because he knew it was coming and we had a wonderful group of talent that was in the youth ranks, He knew it was coming and his boys were in that group. Of course, Johnny was one of the leaders of that group.”
“The nineties was a good run,” Jim said. “We had a great principal at the time, a guy by the name of Larry Sanju. At one time, he was the Athletic Director at Apple Valley when it was in its early formative years. He brought a lot of organization down to the school itself and then really took an interest in backing the kids participating in all activities. I was fortunate enough then they offered me the Athletic Directorship in the nineties and then when I moved into that, George (Nemanich) took over and George didn’t miss a beat and added even more to it. We had a nice run in a lot of other sports at that time.”
It was clear that the smaller arena lended to an incredible vibe for the players to play in. “It was awesome, I don’t even want to say it was pressure,” Johnny recalled. “The fans were super supportive. For me, I was fifteen and the place was literally packed. There were multiple times where we had to lock the door and we would do this thing where we would meet at school and just have a little meeting and then we would go to rink as a team and get there halfway through the first period of the JV game. There were lots of times where there was a line 70 yards out the front door and we would have to walk by all these people and they would wish us good luck. I have never been to Warroad or Roseau so I can’t say, but there is nothing like it in Minnesota anymore, sadly. There are just so many options for people to do for their entertainment and back then there wasn’t.”
That energy went beyond Red Wing as the Wingers started attracting crowds. This all magically happened as a result of a perfect storm. A man named Jim Pohl who put the Red Wing hockey program on the map, a group of his son’s that caught the passion bug of hockey from their father and passed that on to their friends and a coach in Nemanich that put it all together. Leading the way through all of it was John Pohl.
“When John had the puck, everyone was just at the edge of their seat,” Nemanich said. That’s why the building would fill up. All of our guys were good but it was the thing to watch and be at. The rink we played in at that time is no longer in existence. It was a smaller rink but it had one bank of stands. I think it held at capacity 600 but it was well over 1,000 people with standing room in that cracker box of a rink. It got so loud in there, it was Berwgall Arena. It was tough for teams to come into our building. We would have teams come in from the North and they would just be amazed and they would say this is just like being up north. It was a great atmosphere and it was hard because I think the arena configuration helped make it that way because it was so loud, it was deafening and it didn’t take a lot of people to make it that way but we had a lot of people in there.”
The packed arena vibe went beyond Red Wing as Johnny Pohl and the Red Wing Wingers were drawing crowds everywhere.
“It was almost surreal,” Mark said of games away from Red Wing. “Most places that we traveled to on the road, their buildings were packed because they all wanted to watch Johnny play. I felt it the most actually, the year after he left, I still had one more year and he was at the U playing. I remember looking across the locker room at where he used to sit and I think that is when it really hit me. It was the magnitude of what he brought to the locker room and just the whole experience. I realized the significance of his time at Red Wing and there was no replacing a kind of a figure like Johnny. He was the kind of person you wanted to work hard for to keep the legacy that he worked so hard to establish and keep that alive.”
Having experienced hockey in Red Wing, life at the next level for Pohl almost rang hollow from the showtime atmosphere of Red Wing, packed road games, state tournaments.
To take this a couple steps further, when I went to the U then, my first game, I wasn’t nervous at all,” Johnny said. “Played in front of packed barns in high school all the time so for four years I had done that. With the Gophers at that time, you played before sold out places all the time. The last college game I played had 20,000 people in it. So then I went to the minors and my second year, I got called up for my first NHL game and I played one game for St. Louis and got sent down right after the game. One of the guys, a guy from Saskatchewan came up to me like I was Santa Claus and he was like, ‘How was it man? Tell me, was it like the greatest thing ever?’ I was honestly telling him the truth, I was like, it was fine, and he got pissed off at me. He felt insulted that I told him it wasn’t that great. He was like, ‘What the f to you mean? That’s my dream.’ I said I played in front of that many people in high school. I wasn’t even trying to be a jerk about it.
It’s cool to say you played in the NHL but playing a game for the Blues on a Tuesday night in November, means nothing. 20,000 at the Xcel Center when a title is on the line, that is something! Playing in Red Wing on a Friday night against Benilde, packed, locked doors, band in there, I mean, that is awesome! This was nothing. I was trying to be nice about it but I could tell it really made him mad. I have told people that my background really set me up in a negative way as a professional because I played hockey growing up because my buddies played, period. My brothers played and those guys are my best friends. I got super lucky when I got to the U, that group that came in together, we became best friends. They were a great group of guys and we are super close to this day. Then you go to pro, and it’s everyone completely for themselves. It’s the Herb Brooks reversed, like the name on the back of the sweater is way more important than the name on the front of your jersey in pro hockey. I had a hard time with that for years. My first three years, it was really hard for me and we would lose a game 5-2 and if a guy on our team scored, he’d be all pumped up after the game. It was just really really weird. I just feel so lucky that I came through at a time like that.”
The amazing thing about doing this article on John Pohl has been the depth of understanding the player he became was a direct result of the person he is. He is authentic, realistic, coachable, thoughtful, observant, and has passion. Pohl held on to that passion which was a true love for him and it was nurtured within, and by others, from his three brothers to his father, coaches, and friends he grew up playing the game with. His sponge-like way allowed him to take the game to another level and he did so for no other reason than the love of hockey and people.
It was the authentic way of him that led to being the leader he was. Many view leaders as the easy to spot vocal sort. Johnny led through his example and when needed delivered for his team on the ice and in the locker room.
“In the room, when he said something, his teammates were on board,” Nemanich said. “The one thing about Johnny is he was always a very focused guy.”
There is a fun side to Pohl that is evident and was on full display his freshman year as Nemanich recalled, “He loved to joke around and screw around a lot and even in a game, sometimes he’d say something that was just out of the blue funny. I remember one time, this was his freshman year, we were playing a third place game against Warroad in the state tournament and it was at the old Civic Center and the lights went out for some reason, right in the middle of the play. He was on the ice and he came off the ice, and we were getting throttled by Warroad. He said he put the puck in the net while it was dark. He said, ‘Hey coach, I just scored a goal.’ (big laughs) Everyone was ordered off the ice, so he put it in the net so when the lights went back on, the refs had to go fish it out of the net. Of course, we were all raising our hands like we scored. We all knew it was a joke and they were laughing too.
That was the kind of guy he was. He was funny but he was also super serious. I can remember a game, this was his senior year, we were playing Benilde and they were a really nice up and coming team. We were at St. Louis Park and we were struggling as a team and they had us on the ropes and John put us on his back and we won. He had all three goals and I think it was 3-2, the final we won by a goal. I remember Buddha (BSM coach Ken Pauly) came up to me and said, ‘That damn Pohl!’ If we didn’t have him, obviously we wouldn’t have won without him and would have been in real trouble.”
Brother Mark pointed to his brother’s dynamic personality and ability to tap into that when needed. “He was pretty quiet actually,” Mark said. “Johnny has charisma and he had a presence that he never had to tell people he was the leader, never had to. He had a presence that set the tone for everybody. Everyone does their thing and everyone has their way about preparation and has their way about competing. Without him saying a word, he often-times set a tone that really brought the team together, like to say hey guys we’re gonna win this game. Get on my back and let’s go. No one asked questions. We just tried to pick up the slack.”
Treating others with respect was a part of Johnny’s approach and Mark didn’t hesitate when saying that was part of his older brother’s fabric and said, “It’s part of his character. He treated everyone well. None of his success went to his head. He was humble in his leadership and he was supportive of other teams. He had a great relationship with the basketball coach and was always there to try to cheer on his friends and support them. He never wanted a spotlight even though it followed him. He wanted to be a friend too. It was fun because dad was the Athletic Director and the Assistant Principal so, we had the family presence at school. It wasn’t just the hockey team, the rest of the school, the rest of the sports just fed off that. There was always a fun energy at that time. I think a lot of that came from the success that we had that we shared with everyone else.”
Nemanich said it was interpersonal skills that Johnny possessed that took his leadership to another level. “In general, he was such a good leader,” Nemanich said. “He had an ability to read his teammates and read what was going on in the locker room or out in the lobby of the rink after a game. He could interview with the best of them, believe me. He was great that way (laughs). I mean, way beyond his years, believe me. He had a confidence about him and he was the oldest of four boys and I think that leadership came naturally. The perception he had is true, certainly with his teammates and with other people. He had an eclectic personality and a way to lead that was humble yet confident.”
Talent does not mean to be confused with skills. Players who have good habits tend to have talent and subsequently good skill organically. Pohl's talent was a result of trusting what he saw, translating that to his hands, and putting the puck in the right spot while getting open immediately after while finishing if needed. It is multitasking at its finest and he wasn’t manufactured.
“He always has been a player with incredible vision. He was making passes that no one else on that ice could make. He was making plays, whether it was an assist or scoring a goal that nobody else had any business being able to make those plays. How he used his teammate on the ice, he was just, you know you always hear that cliche that they always make everyone else better, well, he really did. That really was a truism for him.” Nemanich said.
Explaining Johnny’s uncanny vision, Jim pointed to his son’s ability to be coached and perceive things as to how his talent evolved. One can’t make a kid watch and observe, it comes from within and Johnny had that. “He is very coachable,” Jim said. “He’s got this ability to take what people are saying, weigh it, believe in it and if it doesn’t work the first time, he’s still going to give it a second and third try. I think he’s very intelligent as far as the game goes and he never wants to stop learning and it’s the sixth sense that he displayed. It always takes him a little time to survey the territory, he’d go, and things take off. Part of that is he is trying to learn all phases of what he needs to do at that level.”
There was not a lot of training then as we know it in today’s youth sports where the focus is on individual skill sets. That does not necessarily create a player that is cerebral and innate in decision making. Johnny pointed out that he didn’t participate in many off-ice training programs.
“I started lifting weights after my senior year in high school,” Johnny said. “The only thing I ever ‘trained’ for hockey is one year, maybe after my sophomore year, our coach George Nemanich implemented an off season deal where there was a challenge for everyone to shoot 10,000 pucks. So, I shot 10,000 pucks in my garage. I never worked on my skating. I never worked on stickhandling, I guess I shot pucks. I never lifted weights. It came fine. My skill level was fine, but I think the reason I was able to advance and to things beyond high school, and have success in high school and college is, I can’t honestly explain this at all, the game just kind of came to me. I probably shouldn’t have had the success I did with my physical abilities in college or even professionally. I think it was the fact that I went and watched so many high school games growing up, I would actually sit and watch the games. I would chase the girls a little bit but I would actually watch the game.
That wasn’t by choice really. My dad didn’t want to pay for a babysitter so he would just have us come to the games and I just loved watching. This was for four or five years. After the game, we would all go home and my dad would order pizza because he couldn’t cook, and Domino’s would come and we would just kind of sit around and talk about the game. I think just having a dad as a coach, there’s even today Krissy and i would be watching a game. I'll say something like oh my gosh and she will say, ‘Oh my God, you saw that coming two seconds early,’ and I don’t know. I can’t explain it, hockey just kind of came to me in terms of where to be, when to move the puck. It just kind of happened. I never shot it very hard, my hands were ok, and my skating got a lot better when I turned professional. I don’t know, it just kind of came to me.”
With good vision comes the ability to anticipate opponents and create more space. Players with the ability that Johnny had in seeing the ice are able to hang on to the puck a fraction longer and seem to make the correct decision longer than others. In other cases, they get rid of the puck quicker and are able to find a teammate and maintain possession longer. That creates an electrifying player that puts people on the edge of their seats.
“He was so dominant with the puck. When the puck was on his stick, it was like everybody in the place just got excited because something good was going to happen,” Nemanich said. “You know how it is with players that have an electric ability, when they have the puck on their stick something is going to happen. Certainly, he did that so well and the nice thing was we were able to pair him with two guys who just also fed off that and they had such great chemistry. The three of them together were phenomenal. John had that ability when he had the puck on his stick, it wasn’t because he was so fast, he wasn’t, he had decent speed but it wasn’t flashy, but he just had an ability to make everybody in the rink excited when he had the puck on his stick.”
Being a two-way player is key to having talent as well and it was a part of Johnny’s game that may have gone under-appreciated as his team was up ice so much and in the offensive zone. When they played against teams that challenged them, Nemanich was quick to point out the 200-foot game that Pohl had.
“He was really good,” Nemanich said when asked of Johnny’s defensive game. “Actually, that is an underrated part of his game. There were games where we didn’t spend a lot of time in our own end. When we would play against some solid teams that it was up and down play, he was a very honest hockey player. He was a very good two-way player. He was our first line center so oftentimes he was matched up against good players and he knew how to play the defensive game. I think that came from his dad and I think his dad really impressed upon all of his boys, everyone of the Pohl boys was a good two-way player. They played the game the honest way and that certainly started with John and I think it served him well once he got to college and then into the pros. By the time he got to the pros, he was going to have to be some kind of defensive player. He wasn’t going to be the best player on the ice anymore. He made a career out of that. He had some very good skills but he also had to be a defensive player too and he could do it because that’s how he grew up playing.”
Jim summed up Johnny’s talent this way and said, “He just had it. You see it with guys in various sports and hockey guys can do it with strength, do it with speed, do it with shots, and do it with size. Then you have guys that can do it with finesse and so on. But those that make the right pass at the right time or are in the right place at the right time, those guys are few and far between. To be perfectly honest Wayne Gretzky, not the biggest. He didn’t have the greatest shot in the world but boy did he know where to be.” That is not a stretch to make the same comparison as Johnny Pohl was a similar version to the “Great One” in high school hockey in the mid nineties.
It is not to be overlooked that John Pohl certainly maintained discipline and put in the work to make it happen. “I think it begins with the individual and the type of person they are,” Jim added. “Are they an individual that says they want to do something and waits for it all to happen or are they a person that is going to do that extra? When I say hard work, there are just a lot of things that transpired during his training years and his playing years that he was extremely disciplined in trying to fulfill the necessary things to help him become a better player. He didn’t just want to mentally be a better player, he wanted to contribute to his team. He wanted it when there was thirty seconds left in the game and they needed a goal to win it or tie it, or whatever. He wanted to be on the ice. So, what he’d have to do to get on the ice and whether it was improve your skating, improve your shot, you know the good Lord puts a limit on us all. You can only get so big and and you can get so strong. So, what can you do to facilitate what God has given you. I think he maximized that and it was his discipline and his desire.”
Pohl began to generate attention from colleges including the University of Minnesota. Watching the Gophers on Saturday evenings were a big part of the weekend during the winter for him. “We got cable in ninth grade and probably starting tenth grade, we would always play Friday night and then every Saturday night I would be in my basement watching MSC and that was the biggest thing for me,” Johnny said. “After my sophomore year, I started getting letters and I made the US Under 18 team.
It’s so funny because this just shows how naive I was. We played in Canada, we played for the Pacific Cup. Canada had Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. We had Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta was on our team. All I was thinking of when was up there was, if I do well, I can be a Division I player out of this. Then Joe Thornton and Marleau are going 1-2 in the draft the next year. I remember telling my dad on the way home from the airport that every guy on our team is going to play Division I, I think I can do it. He said there is no doubt. If you actually start trying and training and devoting yourself, you can do it. I pretty much was getting letters from everywhere because I did fine in the tournament. I scored a few goals and we lost in the championship. My heart was total Gophers and at the end of my junior year, I took an unofficial visit up there and they offered me a full scholarship. I Knew right then, this is what I want. My biggest fear going there was they have a million good players. How am I gonna play?”
Pohl went on to play four years at the University of Minnesota where he lit it up like a Christmas tree in posting (71g-129a-200pts) in 165 games. That ranks him 9th all-time in points. He is fifth all-time in assists. Pohl was a member of the 2002 Golden Gopher National Championship team. He was a member of the NCAA All-Tournament team in 2002 and a ACHA West First Team All American in 2002. Following his incredible four years at Minnesota, Pohl went on to play eight seasons of professional hockey that included 4 campaigns in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs.
When looking back on his son having played at the highest of levels and for an Original Six organization, Jim could not help but beam with pride. “It’s like a dream come true,” Jim said. “His greatest goal was to play for the Wingers, in Red Wing one time. Obviously as he matured that goal got larger. To see a guy that would come from the least likely area of Minnesota and eventually make it to one the pinnacle franchises of the NHL, you kind of want to slap yourself and you thank the good Lord that he was rewarded for all the hard work that that kid put in. He just really worked hard.”
Even with the success of reaching the pinnacle of hockey, when asked about what it was like to play high school hockey in Red Wing compared to the NHL, Pohl didn’t hesitate and said, “A million times better.”
Life after hockey
Pohl went onto marry USA Hockey Hall of Famer Krissy Wendell, arguably the greatest women's hockey player in Minnesota history. They have three daughters and coached girls hockey together at Cretin-Derham Hall.
“He was gone an awful lot," Jim said of his son's professional career. "He was on the USA team and they had a lot of success and a nice world tournament. He did everything he could but, he was gone. When he retired when he was like 30-years old he said, ‘Dad, I’ve been on the road and I want to get into a way of life that I’m not going to be on the road all time.’ So, I steered him toward education and he has his three daughters and wife and she’s a tremendous girl, she really is. I know she gets all the accolades as a hockey star but she is really a good person. He is a very very lucky guy. I think both of them have been gone with their dreams and now they have got these three girls and it kind of revolves around them. He likes to spend as much time as possible with them."
John went right to what he knew in hockey as a coach while he attended graduate school. “My first year out of hockey I started teaching right away at Cretin and I helped out with the boys team for a year and I was in grad school and didn’t do a whole lot," John said of coaching hockey.
When asked if John would consider taking over as coach of the Pioneers some day Jim felt as though his experience as a coach may just keep John off the bench as Jim noted he himself, wanting to be with his four sons. "I know when I coached I was off with the varsity team and my kids were playing pee wee’s and bantams and somebody else was taking them to the game,” Jim said. For now, John and Krissy have their three girls that they are raising and enjoying.
Education has proven to be a great spot for Pohl and working with the teams even better. “He’s doing what he loves," Jim said. "John loves the game and he loves to teach and he loves sports and he loves to be around kids. At Cretin (Derham Hall) High School he taught business and he started a high school store from the school. He went over to Hill initially as an Academic Counselor to help kids that were struggling with their academics. Now, he’s obviously an Athletic Director. It’s kind of humbling to see him take the same route but you wish him well because that was his choice. First and foremost, he is about his family, his faith, and his work. It’s the same as his desire to progress in hockey as well.”
Being recognized is frequent for the Pohls who were the optimal tag team coaching at Cretin-Derham Hall. “When we coached the Cretin girls we would have refs come up to us every once in a while and a couple of them said hey, I reffed you in high school and he said, those were the best we would love going down there," Johnny said. "We made one section final when we coached at the Cretin girls and it was at Stillwater. It was packed and it reminded me of that is what every single game we got to play was like. I remember Krissy and I talking on our way home and we were like, that’s high school sports. That was better than playing at the Xcel Energy Center in front of of 2,000 people. We had it for every home game. It was incredible, it was awesome.”
There are multiple legacies that came about with Red Wing hockey and the Pohl family. The first was built by Jim Pohl and the work that he put in to make it all happen. Like his family does, they deflect praise to those around them. Jim Pohl did reflect on what happened over the years and said, “I think a lot of it goes to the community of Red Wing itself. The people of Red Wing were involved when I initiated the hockey program there in ‘74 were extremely dedicated people to the game. Obviously, they had kids involved, a couple people didn’t have any kids involved and were retired and just loved the game. he pure passion of the people to have their kids enjoy the game and learn the game, I think is one of the facets that really stands in my mind when I reflect like that.”
As for John Pohl in regard to his father he said, "I will go to my dad first. There is 1 million percent that there is no Red Wing Hockey without him. He single handedly built it and in a town like Red Wing, you need that. In Roseau, you need one or two families that carry the mail and get it going and do that. Think about it, he rode busses for seven or eight years to practice a half hour away, at five in the morning. Back then, it was a one class tournament. The odds of them making the state tournament were 0.1 percent, right? They had to compete with Burnsville in Section 1 and the Rochester schools. He did it to build something that there have been so many kids that have been able to benefit from him. It is 100% because of him and probably selfishly in the back of his mind we wanted to create something that his kids could have a positive experience from and he did that. He pushed to get the rink built. He ran camps in the summer. He coached our squirt team one year. There is a guy like that in tons of communities throughout Minnesota. Without him, Red Wing hockey is nothing, no question about it.”
For coach George Nemanich, he was inducted into the the Minnesota Coaches Hall of Fame in 2017 and had one heck of a ride at Red Wing High School where he currently is the Principal. “I’ll tell you what, I became a really good coach,” Nemanich said when asked if Johnny Pohl helped him become a better coach. “I’ll say this. I have benefited a huge amount from having him as a player on my team. It’s your players that make you look good and it did benefit me in my career. I had very good players early and it forces you to have to coach to their level. You have to up your game as a coach because they’re good and they are expecting you to be good too and know what you are doing. I feel a huge benefit from having that experience early in my career and can say for myself, I grew a lot from having that experience. Later, when I didn’t have the kind of talent that we had in the late 90’s it helped me because I had to go through those experiences. Our players were phenomenal and I was lucky. I had John and we had some really good ones.”
For Mark Pohl, his brothers, the team and the town of Red Wing, there were memories that were built to last a lifetime and beyond with brother John serving as the motor behind all of it. “What I would say that I am proud of is we earned some success at a time where Red Wing did not have a pedigree as a hockey school and we played in an era where kids on our high school team we shared success with were our best friends growing up," Mark said. "They were our pee wee teammates, they were our squirt teammates and we had grown up talking about having had an opportunity to play in a state tournament. It certainly is a different era now, but when I think about that time and playing with Johnny and that whole experience, I think he always went about doing things the right way. He never sought attention and was just trying to do things the right way. He never focused on shortcomings and tried to work and improve. He was just the complete player forecheck, back check, and position. The other thing I get a little emotional about thinking about that time, he had a style which was not me first, even the way he played the game he was more of a natural playmaker than a goal scorer although he became a very prolific goal scorer. He always went on the ice with the intention of making his teammates better and making them look good. He was a consummate team player who truly made the team that he played on great.”
Finally, for Johnny Pohl, it was about a player that maximized himself and those around him on his teams. The Red Wing Wingers were relevant and the talk of Minnesota Hockey during the four years Johnny Pohl played for his town, high school, and buddies.
When asked about his experience playing hockey in Red Wing, John Pohl summed it up this way and said, “It gave me an incredible opportunity and experience. It allowed me to represent my school and family, to play with my best friends. Just the other day, our goalie from the ‘97 team sent me a picture of our celebration on the bus home. I passed it onto a buddy and we just laugh about it. You are kids and you get to experience something that’s so cool. You find that from year-to-year, you are just so happy for those kids that it’s just such an awesome experience to be able to play for your school, to be able to play with your buddies because you will never get it again. As much as I loved my experience at the U, collegiate athletics is completely different now, especially with hockey, guys there for a year or two. In high school, these are the guys that are in your biology class or they are in the group you go to prom with. The goes you’d got to the football game with. You never get to replicate that again and it was lucky for me because it was pure. We did it for fun. It wasn’t about getting to the Gophers or trying to score a thousand points. It was just, this is what we do. We get on the bus, laugh, joke, we never had a team stretch. One of my favorite memories is before the State Championship game we were all sitting on the floor in our dress clothes. Coach came in and said warm up is in 10 minutes lets get ready to go. We were like, OK, we put our stuff right on and went out, no warmups!”
That's how it was in the day, pure as John would say. As a player, a person, leader, and pillar to a town that watched a legend in Minnesota High School Hockey grow up before their eyes, Johnny Pohl was pure.