With the 2021 IIHF Women’s World Championship less than three weeks away, the five-time reigning gold medalists sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world with an abrupt coaching change.

On Friday, USA Hockey announced that Bob Corkum, head coach of the U.S. women’s hockey team, would be stepping down, and Joel Johnson was named interim head coach.

The 2021 world championship gets underway on May 6 in Halifax and Truro, N.S. The Americans begin their gold medal defence against Switzerland, which can be seen live on TSN.

Corkum had been the American head coach since the 2018-19 season. He led the team to a fifth straight gold medal at the 2019 world championship.

“While it was coach Corkum’s personal decision to step away, he leaves a legacy,” forward Kendall Coyne Schofield told TSN.  “He came into this program right after the 2018 Olympics and he’s really built a lot over the last two years with us. But we’re really excited. Our goal, our mission doesn’t change. We’re really excited for Joel Johnson as our new interim head coach.”

The players found out about the coaching change upon arrival in Portland, Maine, where the team is currently training before they travel to Halifax on Thursday.

“Bob put his heart and soul into continuing to build on the legacy of our women’s national team program over the past three seasons and we’re grateful for all he did,” Katie Million, director of women’s national team programs for USA Hockey, said in a statement. “While he’s stepping away, he’ll always be a big part of the USA Hockey family and we’ll certainly miss him.”

Johnson has been involved with the USA Hockey since 2015. As head coach of the women’s Under-18 team, he led the American squad to four straight gold medals at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship from 2015 to 2018.

He has also been an associate head coach of the women’s hockey team at the University of Minnesota for the last 16 seasons, helping to mentor current U.S. players like forward Amanda Kessel and defenceman Megan Bozek.

He joined the senior U.S. team as an assistant coach for the 2018-19 season, and with the familiarity, Coyne Schofield said there shouldn’t be any issues for the players to adapt to the change.

“He’s been with us since after the 2018 Olympics,” she said. “He’s been with our U18 program as well for a long time. He’s a familiar face. He knows us very well. When coach Corkum and [assistant coach Brian] Pothier came in, Joel Johnson was the familiar face for a lot us players because we have seen him as we’ve come up through this program, whether it was with the U18s or the University of Minnesota. So it’ll be a seamless transition for sure.”

“We are extremely fortunate to have someone like Joel to step in and guide our team at the world championship,” Million said. “He’s been an important part of our program and is well positioned to help build on the success we’ve enjoyed.”

Also behind the bench is Allison Coomey, an associate head coach with Penn State, who Coyne Schofield said has had a “phenomenal year.”  Pothier, who joined the staff after the 2018 Olympics, stays on as an assistant.

It’s already been a tumultuous year for the U.S. team and women’s hockey. The 2020 world championship was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many players have seen limited ice time. The Americans haven’t played together since Feb. 2020, when they wrapped up the Rivalry Series against the Canadians.

“It’s been a grind of year for everybody. We waited a long time to put this jersey back on, to be together,” said Coyne Schofield.

“The last world championship that was played was in 2019. That was a very long time ago. These are new rosters for everyone. It will take some time, but based on my experience, the world championship the year before the Olympic Games is always the best, always the most competitive. So while it might be a slow start, it might be a little rusty for a lot of the countries, I expect this to be the best one yet since the [2018] Olympics.”