His Toughest Battle

The champion Pittsburgh Penguins are pulling for stricken coach Bob Johnson
October 20, 1991

Bob Johnson has trouble speaking, but no trouble believing. Johnson, the coach of the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, is largely paralyzed on his left side, but he can write with his right hand and see his team play on television, via satellite dish, in his Colorado Springs home. Therefore he can still be Badger Bob, which means living each day for hockey, just as he did before he underwent surgery in August for brain cancer.

So after the Penguins beat the Flyers 6-3 last Thursday in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh assistant coach Barry Smith asked directions to the nearest phone. Smith had promised to call Johnson following the game and fill him in on whatever he couldn't see on television. After each of Pittsburgh's four games this season—the Penguins were 2-1-1 at week's end—Johnson was faxed the game evaluations of the players, and when he felt up to it, he sent interim coach Scotty Bowman suggestions for attacking the next opponent. "This team keeps him going," said Smith as he hurried down the hallway. "It gives him a focus."

Johnson's wife, Martha, fields the phone calls. She was thrilled that her husband was able to come home from the hospital last week, and told him to get ready for the improvement in his condition that doctors anticipated after his cycle of radiation treatments was completed. Of course, neither she nor the Penguins, who have delayed raising their 1991 Stanley Cup championship banner until Johnson can travel to see it, need a medical opinion to believe that he is going to bounce back. Last year he taught his team how.

Johnson won three NCAA titles in 15 seasons at Wisconsin, taking a year out to coach the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, before leaving in '82 to become coach of the Calgary Flames, whom he lifted from mediocrity to the NHL's upper echelon. He left the Flames in '87, two seasons before they won the Cup, because he felt the executive directorship of USA Hockey, the head administrative position for hockey in the U.S., was something he could not turn down. But he soon learned that he was a coach, not an administrator, and in June 1990 the perfect team for Johnson—talented but with a poor self-image—lured him to Pittsburgh.

"I thought, This guy can't be for real," said defenseman Paul Coffey. "Nobody can be that up all the time. But he made us believers." In particular, he made them believers in the playoffs, during which the Penguins fell behind in all four series before pulling out victory—just as Johnson told them they could.

"I've reached the top of the mountain," he said after the Penguins smashed the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 to win the Cup four games to two. Typically, he paused only briefly before ascending toward the next peak. Johnson, 60, agreed to coach the U.S. Canada Cup team for a fourth time.

But as the American players reported to Pittsburgh for the opening of Team USA's training camp in August, Johnson became aware that his speech was slightly slurred. He suspected a dental ailment and coached the team on a 12-day exhibition tour. Those closest to him noticed the slurring too, and they saw that he was also having mild coordination problems in eating and that he looked tired.

When the U.S. team returned to Pittsburgh two days before its Aug. 31 tournament opener, Johnson arranged to undergo medical tests. But that evening his condition dramatically worsened. Emergency surgery was performed hours later to remove a bleeding, life-threatening tumor on the right side of his brain. Another tumor was inoperable.

The news shook the sport. Who in the hockey community had not been touched by Johnson? When Jaromir Jagr, who didn't know enough English as an 18-year-old Penguin rookie last season to carry on a simple conversation with his coach, was told at the Czechoslovakian team's training camp in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, of Johnson's plight, he broke down and cried.

The American players, most of whom had learned the gospel of hockey from Johnson at a clinic or a school somewhere in their youth, were stunned. "I never thought anything would go wrong with Badger," said Team USA and Calgary Flame defenseman Gary Suter. That was because Johnson always stressed what was going right. Now the players were being told that the most irrepressible person most of them had ever known almost hadn't made it through the night.

As is his nature, Johnson didn't get down in the dumps about his condition. The day following the surgery, he wrote memos to his stand-in coach, Tim Taylor. Before the Americans played their semifinal game against Finland, Johnson faxed the team this message: "For all the kids in the border towns from Minnesota to New York, you are their heroes. All the hockey kids idolize [Wayne] Gretzky. I want them to idolize players like [Jeremy] Roenick and [Mike] Modano from the U.S. USA Hockey needs identity. This is our chance to reach out for some."

The Americans made the finals but lost the best-of-three series in two games to Canada. By then, Johnson had been transferred to the hospital in Colorado Springs. "The fire of coaching still burns inside me," he said as he left Pittsburgh. "When I return, it will be my greatest day in coaching."

The Penguins know to hope for something more realistic than Johnson's coming back to their bench. "I just want him to be able to enjoy his life again," says Penguin defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. During last season's playoffs, Johnson leaned on Bowman, the Penguins' player personnel director, for advice. Now Bowman is asking for help. A brilliant bench strategist who motivated the Montreal Canadiens to victory in five Stanley Cups by keeping his players off-balance, Bowman says he will coach the Penguins with a lighter touch. He saw the results Johnson got that way. "Because of what's happened, the players here now have a sense of responsibility that they might not have had otherwise," Bowman says.

The Penguins' championship rings arrived from the manufacturer last week. A week earlier, when Johnson's condition briefly took a turn for the worse, general manager Craig Patrick arranged to get Johnson's ring early and flew to Colorado Springs with it. He wanted Johnson to have it, just in case.

Like other members of the Penguin organization, Patrick has difficulty accepting Johnson's illness. "I think I'm still in the denial stage," he said in his office last week as tears ran down his cheeks. "I'm still very hopeful that Bob is going to be back. Knowing his personality and his attitude, he will be."

Johnson taught the Penguins to think as he does, so they are leaving a light on for him.

TWO PHOTOSPAUL BERESWILLGoalie Tom Barrasso and his mates must carry on without Johnson (top). PHOTOPAUL BERESWILLMark Recchi (8), Kevin Stevens and the other Penguins now take orders from Bowman.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)