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Assistant coach Chad Johnson has been a big key to Force's success

The key to a successful expansion franchise in the United States Hockey League isn't great coaching, a great draft or even pulling in a bunch of fans that first season.

The key to a successful expansion franchise in the United States Hockey League isn't great coaching, a great draft or even pulling in a bunch of fans that first season.

The key appears to be Chad Johnson.

The Fargo Force assistant coach was also an assistant for the expansion Lincoln Stars in 1996-97. The Stars went on to win the USHL title that year.

Johnson is now trying to help the Force hoist the Clark Cup in their inaugural season.

"I don't know if I'm really the secret," Johnson said with a laugh.

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"The Clark Cup is a tough thing to win with the parity in this league.

"Things have to go right, but both times we had good teams going into the playoffs."

Fargo takes on Indiana - which is also making its first trip to the Clark Cup finals - in the best-of-5 series that starts tonight in Indianapolis. The puck drops at 6:05 p.m.

Johnson was an assistant with his brother, Steve, in that 1996-97 season. The Stars went 40-13-0-1 that season and finished second in the USHL South - just one point behind Omaha.

Lincoln then rolled through the playoffs, beating Rochester, Omaha and Green Bay on the way to the Clark Cup. The Stars won 12 of their 14 playoff games that year.

The Force are on a similar tear during these playoffs, having swept their first two opponents.

Johnson said that there are some similarities between the two teams.

"We had good goaltending back then (with Jason Braun in net), and we had some rugged players with some skill," Johnson said. "It's tough to pinpoint just one glaring similarity, but there were some."

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The USHL had no limit on the number of 20-year-olds teams could have back then, so Lincoln was able to put together a roster with some experience.

The Force have 12 kids on their roster that are still in high school.

"In '96-97, we didn't have a limit on 20-year-olds, so we had a seasoned group," Johnson said. "Having guys with experience really made a difference and we won 40 games.

"This year Jake Areshenko is the only kid on this team with any playoff experience at this level."

That Lincoln gig was Johnson's first foray into coaching. From there he had successful head-coaching gigs with the Bismarck Bobcats and Fargo-Moorhead Jets of the NAHL before hooking up with Dean Blais and the Force this season.

What's the biggest difference between the two teams?

"This team is better," Johnson said with a laugh. "But from where this team was in October - when we didn't get a shot on net against Cedar Rapids for 30 minutes - is really amazing.

"That's the biggest difference between the USHL and the NAHL is the improvement. We're dealing with 15- and 16-year-olds, and these guys have come a long way."

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kerry Collins at (701) 241-5548.

Collins' blogs can be found at www.areavoices.com

Related Topics: HOCKEYUSHL
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