As the film threaded through the projector—tic-tic-tic-tic—the hawk-nosed man operating the machine began to twitch with excitement. "This one's really good," Bob Johnson said. "It's an excellent film. You don't want to miss this one, boy. Everything you need to know about Badger hockey is here." When Johnson is enthused, which is 90% of the time, he enunciates his words with relish, as if they were being recorded for posterity. His china-blue eyes shine and dart about. He bares his teeth.
On this occasion Johnson was showing highlights of the University of Wisconsin's 1972-73 hockey season, which culminated in the Badgers' first NCAA championship. They repeated in 1977 and in 1981, but the highlight films of those successes lack the drama of that 1973 classic. Oh, what a recruiting tool! In the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in Boston Garden. Wisconsin fell behind Cornell 4-0, and then 5-2 in the third period. "We're going to win this one, boy. Don't go away!" said Johnson as the last of the Cornell goals was shown. He was absolutely delighted by the prospect. Badger hockey would prevail. A comeback win, preserved on celluloid! And sure enough, Wisconsin scored three late goals to tie the score and then won 6-5 in overtime.
"I told you!" Johnson said. "The Year of the Champions. They did a great job with that film. You can't leave yet. Wait a minute, this next one's of the 1977 tournament in Detroit. What a tremendous tournament. From Madison to Motown. We won two games in overtime. You're going to love this. Some of the greatest names in Badger hockey history...John Taft...Mark Johnson...Craig Norwich...." Tic-tic-tic-tic-tic. The film was rolling.
What you're watching, ladies and gentlemen, is the best-run, best-promoted, most enthusiastically supported, best-coached, most profitable college hockey program anywhere. That it's in Madison instead of Boston or Minneapolis is exclusively because of the efforts of the man behind the proboscis. Badger Bob Johnson, 50, also affectionately known as the Hawk. Johnson, a Minnesotan by birth, has become one of the most beloved sports figures in Wisconsin since taking over the Badgers' fledgling hockey program in 1966-67.
February 8, 1982
"This is the only place where they boo the hockey writers and cheer the coach," cracked one of Johnson's colleagues during a recent road trip to Madison. Johnson's teams have a .678 winning percentage (358-168-23). They have won three NCAA championships since 1973; in the same span, the Wisconsin football team has had three winning seasons. Six times in the past 12 years the Badgers have made the NCAA semis.
They also have led the country in home attendance every year since 1970, and in 1980-81 they outdrew the school's basketball team by almost 2,000 fans a game. In 24 appearances last season at the 8,670-seat Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison, the Badgers had 20 sellouts, and the hockey program pumped $350,000 into the athletic department budget. Sums up Tony O'Brien, a referee in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), "Wisconsin's arena is the Montreal Forum of college hockey. Every referee wants to work there. Every coach wants to coach there. Every team wants to play there."
Unless, of course, a team is fussy about its won-lost record. The 1981-82 Badgers may be the best hockey team Wisconsin has ever had—and they aren't even healthy yet. Only six of the 22 players have been able to play in every game. Still, at week's end the Badgers were ranked first in the nation with a 26-4-1 record and had outscored their opponents 184-81. Nine Badgers already have been drafted as future choices by NHL teams, and a 10th, freshman Pat Flatley from Toronto, is expected to go in the first round in June. Says Johnson, "It used to be if you went to college you weren't drafted in the first three rounds, but all that's changed."
One player who hasn't been drafted is Johnson's son, Pete. To maintain an air of impartiality, Johnson never refers to him as Pete or as his son but always as Pete Johnson. A senior wing who was a late bloomer, Pete isn't flashy, but he's a natural scorer. He has emerged from the shadow of older brother Mark—1979 College Player of the Year while at Wisconsin and 1980 Olympic hero who is now playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins—to become the Badgers' No. 2 scorer so far this year, with 30 goals and 19 assists. Sophomore Center John Newberry leads the team with 33 and 21.
Wisconsin didn't even have a hockey program between 1935 and 1962, partly because neither the school nor the town had an indoor rink. Johnson was coaching at Colorado College in 1966 when Wisconsin offered him the job of making its hockey program a national power. One of the principal attractions for him was the coliseum, which was completed after Johnson's first season in Madison. "Before I accepted I asked myself, 'Why isn't there hockey in Wisconsin the way there is in Minnesota?' " Johnson recalls. He decided there could be. "All I had was a desk. I finally got a phone. Then I got a chair. Then I think I got a filing cabinet. I had to sell the program not only to the players but also to the athletic department."
Johnson now has a newly refurbished office in Camp Randall Stadium that would put those of most NHL coaches to shame; the furniture, the decorations, the television—the whole deal—was either donated by local businessmen or paid for by contributions from the Blue Line Club, which numbers some 800 members and last year raised nearly $30,000 for the Badger hockey program. The school makes a hockey highlight film each year. You think the Chicago Black Hawks ever make a highlight film? The team weight room is the size of a small dairy farm. The players get their names stamped on their sticks by the manufacturer. Every home game gets statewide TV coverage. Johnson is the only college hockey coach in the country to have his own television show.
Clearly Wisconsin hockey is big time. But in the early years there was no Blue Line Club. Few people around Madison even knew what a blue line was. "I went to every service club in the city and talked," says Johnson. "I explained icing, offsides, everything. I challenged them to go to three games. If they didn't like it, I said not to come back."
The breakthrough came in 1969-70, the first season in which Wisconsin played in the WCHA. Compared with the previous year, attendance doubled to 6,651 fans a game. Wayne Thomas, an eight-year NHL veteran and now an assistant coach with the New York Rangers, was the goalie on that team. "I never dreamed about playing in the NHL," says Thomas. "Wisconsin wasn't a big hockey school when I was recruited. The Hawk asked a bunch of us if we thought we had enough talent to play in the WCHA, and we said yes. We came in fourth that first year and made the NCAAs. The football team wasn't winning, and the students were looking for a winner. Hockey games became a happening."
Those were, in Johnson's words, "the glory years." Students would line up for tickets to a 7:30 game as early as noon. Rubber chickens were dangled from the coliseum's balcony during games, and to this day Johnson can't watch a Badger highlight film from the early '70s without lamenting the passing of rubber chickens. "They don't do that anymore," he says. "Boy, you should have been here." The vicious "sieve" chant was perfected during those early days. It sounds like a medieval dirge—sieve, sieve, sieve...—as 8,670 arms point toward the opposing goaltender. Oldtimers tell the story of the North Dakota goalie who tried to leave a game after hearing the chant one time too often. He skated to the bench after a Badger goal, but his coach sent him back into the nets following a brief argument. Wisconsin promptly scored again. This time the goalie didn't bother with the bench. As sieve, sieve, sieve thundered throughout the coliseum, he skated directly to the locker room.
The Badgers' version of the Budweiser jingle that was used until recently in TV advertisements within the state (SCORECARD, Dec. 28-Jan. 4) originated at a hockey game. The song has since been adopted by Badger football and basketball fans. It started during the 1972-73 season, when the folks in Section G began screaming for a polka near the end of a win. They are a merry lot. The closest thing to a polka Mike Leckrone, the university bandmaster, could think of was "When you say Bud...da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da...." As the first rendition came to an end he encouraged the fans to substitute Wis-con-sin for Bud-wei-ser. The song immediately caught on. The band plays the tune once every game while Badger fans literally dance in the aisles. Hands go to hearts when they sing. "When you say Wis-con-sin! You've said it all."
Minnesota-Duluth Coach Gus Hendrickson remembers a game in which the Wisconsin crowd nearly drove his club into catatonia. "We came in here a few years ago and were ahead 3-2 in the third period, when we scored but had the goal called back," he says. "The fans gave Wisconsin a five-minute standing ovation—just for having the goal called back. I could see our guys looking around, thinking, 'Here it comes!' Wisconsin beat us 4-3. If you've got young players, those fans will nail you."
Badger fans also have quite an impact on the road. Some 3,000 of them journeyed to Providence for the 1978 NCAA tournament, and they were such a boon to the local economy that a representative from the Providence Chamber of Commerce made the 1,000-mile trip to Madison to present the Badgers with a 3½-foot trophy inscribed TO THE WORLD'S GREATEST FANS. AS if they needed any more encouragement.
One of the many stories from that weekend in Rhode Island involves Wisconsin Athletic Director Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch. He reportedly gave a local saloonkeeper $500 after the Badgers had been eliminated from the tournament and told the man to use the money to purchase as much Old Style beer as he could lay his hands on and then give a can to anybody who came into the bar wearing Badger red.
As avid as the Wisconsin fans are, however, they don't win hockey games. The Badgers' success hinges on Johnson. When he took a leave of absence in 1975-76 to coach the U.S. Olympic team to a fourth-place finish in Innsbruck, Wisconsin fell to 12-24-2, its first losing season since the sport's resurrection in Madison in 1962. When Johnson returned the next year, Wisconsin went 37-7-1 and won the NCAA title.
"Six or seven years ago, when everyone else was playing a real physical style, Bob was playing the skating and passing game," says Hendrickson. "He's never changed. As a tactician, he's excellent."
Last spring when Wisconsin upset Minnesota, Johnson's alma mater for whom he played baseball and hockey, for the national title, one coach remarked, "I've never seen one coach give a clinic to the other in an NCAA tournament game before." Outmanned, Johnson varied the Badgers' forechecking system to befuddle the Gophers and keep them pinned down in their own zone.
When Johnson coached Team USA, all 23 of whose members were NHL players, to a surprising fourth-place finish in the Canada Cup series last fall, he gained more admirers. Said Team USA Goalie Tony Esposito, a 14-year pro, "No doubt about it, the man is a great coach. He's a great motivator, but levelheaded. None of that rah-rah stuff."
"International hockey has helped me gain a whole new view of the game," says Johnson. "I'm more knowledgeable every year. People use the term 'European hockey,' but it's all different—the Russians, the Czechs, the Swedes."
Perhaps no one has analyzed the diverse national styles more thoroughly. Johnson can rattle off not only how each country plays but also how it practices, and to vary Badger workouts, he occasionally has a Russian Day or a Swedish Day or a Canadian Day. His alltime favorite practice—and Johnson can barely contain himself when recalling it—was a 1965 session the Soviets held under Coach Anatoly Tarasov, the Russian master, in Colorado Springs. Johnson wrote down each of the 10 drills they did that day. "The Russians didn't play the Canadian pros until 1972," he says, "but they were as good then as they are now. They spend so much time on conditioning. They've tried to turn every one of their players into Superman, and they've done a great job of it. But I think the Czechs do a better job in a lot of areas, like penalty-killing and power plays."
Johnson incorporated the Czechoslovakian power play—in which the wings stay wide and one man acts as a decoy in front of the net—into Wisconsin's offense several years ago, and in 1976-77 the Badgers scored an astounding 93 power-play goals in 45 games. Now everybody is using it. He also has an "umbrella" power play, with two men in front of the goal and three in an umbrella at the top of the offensive zone, and a "Boston" power play, modeled after the one used by the Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito Bruins. Now he's fooling around with a "Gretzky" power play, featuring one man behind the net.
The most important element in all these plays is the ability of the players to move the puck. One-touch passing, he calls it, and no one does that better than the Swedes. So the Badgers have Swedish drills in which they pass—bing-bing-bing—around a zone, never stopping the puck. When it comes time to shoot, they do so off the pass. The result of all this is that year-in, year-out, Wisconsin has the best power play in college hockey, and this season the Badgers are scoring on 30.5% of their chances.
"The WCHA has an ideal situation for the development of hockey players," says Johnson. "First, we've got a four-to-five-week training camp before our first game. Second, we practice twice as much as we play. Third, we have a long season—six months."
When Johnson arrived at Wisconsin, six former college players were in the NHL. Now there are 59. The knock used to be that the colleges didn't play enough games to prepare a player for the grueling NHL schedule. Today many NHL organizations believe the Canadian junior league teams, which play as many as 100 times a season, don't hold enough practices, and consequently a lot of players come into the league lacking fundamental skills and team discipline.
"I've always believed in the college programs," says Ron Caron, director of personnel and recruiting for the Montreal Canadiens. "We used to have that territory all to ourselves, but now every team's taking college players." Two of Montreal's top draft choices, Chris Chelios (second round), and Newberry (third round) are at Wisconsin. "Every time I go there I see the way the players respect Johnson," says Caron. "Newberry is playing with much more intensity now. With the limited number of games they play, each one is important. I've heard nothing but good words about Johnson, not only about the way he teaches fundamentals, but about the way he teaches intensity, fortitude and the value of a team activity."
Johnson carries the team concept to an extreme. The players receive no money for food on the road; all meals are taken together. When classes aren't in session, he gets the team up by 9:30 to play volleyball or soccer. Why? "If I'm a player on the fourth line and you're a John Newberry, maybe in volleyball I'm a John Newberry and you're a player on the fourth line," Johnson says. "That's important for a team." The Badgers do flexibility exercises every day together, twice on game days, and Johnson has even been known to take the players on walks, although he concedes, "They might not appreciate that." WCHA games are played on Friday and Saturday nights, and every Thursday evening Johnson shows the team a hockey film, which he narrates.
On Sundays, an off day officially, Johnson has made a tradition out of "the Russian games"—voluntary, free-wheeling, no-check sessions in which Badger players, alumni and friends come out to skate. Johnson is always the late Valery Kharlamov, former star of the U.S.S.R. team. The opposition is "the Canadians," unless, of course, a particularly inept group shows up, in which case the Koreans take on the Chinese. Johnson always takes the best goalie for his team, and has been known to bait the losing team into returning to center ice to shake his "Russian" team's hands. If an account of the game appears on the team bulletin board Monday morning, obnoxiously extolling the exploits of Kharlamov, no one has to guess who wrote it.
The only cloud on Wisconsin hockey's horizon is the possibility of Johnson's leaving to coach an NHL team. He's intrigued by the idea, especially now that his youngest son will be graduating. He's following the progress of former Minnesota and Olympic Coach Herb Brooks, who now coaches the Rangers, with more than passing interest. (Johnson's Badgers, it should be noted, were 17-9-3 against Brooks's Gophers.) Tellingly, Johnson's feisty wife, Martha, who rings Dane County Coliseum to life every game with her cowbell, is fascinated by the NHL. "I guess there's one more thing we'd like to try," she says. "I'd rather end up there than here, and it would be nice to leave when we're on top." Then she adds, "I'd also like to be able to afford to go visit my grandchildren."
"It was more fun to build the program than to maintain it," admits Johnson. "People ask, 'Do you think you can coach the pros?' Who are the pros? Mark Johnson? Reed Larson? Dave Christian? I know them and have recruited many of them. Things have changed in the last five years. I think the players in the NHL want good coaching."
No doubt the advice Johnson gives his players about the NHL has entered his thoughts of late. He tells them to get the pros out of their systems or they'll spend the rest of their lives wondering. Johnson, at 50, has never been a better coach than he is now. And he's wondering.
"He'd be a fool to leave," says one former Badger. "He'd never find a position as good as the one he has at Wisconsin." Nonetheless, should the right opportunity come his way, Johnson would consider giving up security—he is a tenured professor in the Wisconsin physical education department—and life as a Badger legend. Why? He's a student of the game, and the NHL is still the best hockey league in the world. It wouldn't be as much fun. Sundays he might be in Chicago or Detroit or Buffalo instead of skating as Kharlamov in Madison. Damn few pro players would go for walks with him. He probably wouldn't even get to make his highlight films. Hockey just wouldn't be the same. Because as everyone in that part of the country knows—hands on your hearts everybody, this one's for Badger Bob—"When you say Wis-con-sin...."