Calle Johansson played more games (1,183) than anyone ever in a Washington Capitals sweater. Several seasons after retiring as an active NHL defenseman, he returned to the District to serve a couple of seasons as a Capitals assistant coach under former head coach Adam Oates.
Now, reluctantly, Johansson is leaving the Caps once again and returning to his native Sweden. This time, he is doing so for family reasons.
“I’m really sorry,” says Johansson, via telephone from Sweden of his difficult decision. “We really liked it. It was a tough decision, really tough.
“The main reason was that our youngest daughter, Madeline, was going to high school over here in Sweden. And she missed one year, and that’s okay. But she didn’t want to miss any more and she really missed her friends. That was the main reason; so my daughter could go back to school in Sweden with her friends. That’s it.”
Johansson’s stint as a Caps’ assistant coach lasted two seasons. The Caps’ defense was undermanned in terms of personnel during most if not all of that time frame, and the team struggled in its own end of the ice as a result.
There were nights last season in which the Caps trotted out six defensemen who combined for fewer than a thousand games played at the NHL level. Washington operated throughout the 2013-14 season with one of the most inexperienced blueline corps in the NHL. That’s a recipe for mediocrity, and that’s what the Caps were in their own end far too frequently last season.
Given the personnel in place, it’s not at all fair to lay the blame for Washington’s underwhelming defense at the feet of Johansson. But that’s what fans and those in the media do, they play the blame game. And that’s fine with Johansson.
“If that’s the case, then I’m more than willing to take it,” says Johansson, who was always brutally honest about his own performance from night to night during his playing days. “I’d rather have me taking the blame for it than the players, because I know they do their best. It comes with the job; it comes with the territory. Whoever is responsible for something, then they have to take the heat for it and if that’s the case then I am more than willing to do it. If I take the heat that means to players can relax and do better next time. I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Johansson had been working in the media in Sweden prior to taking the job as a Washington assistant two summers ago. And he enjoyed every minute of his second stint with the Capitals, even though the results weren’t what were hoped for.
“It was great,” says Johansson of his years as an assistant in the District. “And I can tell you this, to do that for another team would be almost impossible. My heart is in the Capitals’ organization. I lived longer in that town than anywhere else in my life. It is my home basically, and it’s my wife’s home, too. We loved it and we still do.
“The team is amazing to me. It’s a great team with great players. I got along with them, I thought. I really liked all of them and they have great potential. It was a fantastic experience. They really did everything I asked them to do and tried as hard as they could, the defensemen. We really got along.
“I had the best two years since I stopped playing by far. It doesn’t even compare to anything else.”
Talking to Johansson, it sounds as though he’d love to return to the Caps and the States once Madeline has finished high school.
“In a heartbeat,” conforms Johansson. “I told Barry Trotz when I talked to him and I told [team president] Dick [Patrick] and I told [general manager Brian MacLellan] too – but most of all, Barry – if you should ever consider me coming back when Madeline finishes school over here, I would love to come back and get the opportunity to do this again. And my wife says the same thing. We would go back in a heartbeat.”
Johansson has some advice for whomever takes over as the Caps’ next assistant coach with defensive responsibilities.
“You just have to read them,” he says of the team’s blueliners. “They’re all different. They’re all so different. That’s what makes it challenging and also fun. I think whomever comes in next has to get to know them personally instead of just looking at them as hockey players. Get to know the guys really well personally to know how they react to certain things and certain situations both on and off the ice. I think that’s going to be the key to success.
“I know Mike Green is a great offensive defenseman, for example. But that’s not all he wants to do and wants to be. He wasn’t to do other stuff and be another player, too. Whomever comes in next needs to listen to the players because they have a lot of great things to say that can teach the coach about themselves.”
As a player, Johansson was a terrific competitor who hated to lose. Those nights when the Caps ended up on the wrong end of the score were what rankled him most as a coach, too.
“To deal with losses,” he responds, when asked about his greatest challenge as a coach. “As a coach, when you lose you blame yourself as a coach. The guys do all they can, but maybe I should have told them something different or taught them something different before.”
Johansson isn’t sure what’s next for him professionally at this point.
“I don’t have anything lined up at all,” he relates. “And I’m probably the dumbest man in the world for giving up the best job in the world without having anything to do.
“I hope in some capacity I can still be involved with the Caps, even from over here. I want to. Like I said, my heart is there. I’ve been there for a lot of years. I wish there was some position that I could do something for them from over here.”
Johansson’s passion for the Caps continues to burn. It won’t be at all surprising to see him involved with the team again in some official capacity at some point in the future.