In a Class by Himself

When Badger Bob Johnson died on Nov. 26, U.S. hockey lost its biggest and best booster
December 09, 1991

I hadn't seen Bob Johnson for two years when I walked into the Team USA dressing room in Chicago Stadium in August. He was getting the team ready for the Canada Cup tournament, and as was his kibitzing nature, he met me in full conversational stride. "Princeton hockey!" he shouted, grinning at the joke he was about to make at my expense. I had played for the Tigers from 1970 to 73, and Johnson, who was known as Badger Bob because of his 15-year coaching stint at the University of Wisconsin, knew the lore of all U.S. college hockey teams, their records and their rivalries. "Who was the last NHL player from Princeton?" he asked.

Before I could guess Syl Apps Jr., Johnson was telling me about the NHL draft in 1985, when he was coach of the Calgary Flames. Calgary had drafted Chris Biotti, a high school player who was headed for Harvard, in the first round and was preparing to draft a Crimson player, Lane MacDonald, in Round 2. "Wait a minute!" Johnson told the assembled scouts. "Who was the last Harvard guy to play in the NHL?" No one could remember. "And we're about to draft two of them!" he said. The Flames passed on MacDonald until the third round and selected another Ivy Leaguer, Joe Nieuwendyk of Cornell, instead.

Johnson could tease me about Ivy League hockey because no man had ever done more than he had to support and promote the college game. Hockey was a subject he could discuss endlessly. Unlike many of the great coaches you hear about—Bear Bryant, John Wooden, Paul Brown—Johnson loved to talk.

But on this day in August, there wasn't much time to chat; he had to meet his sister for lunch. So he said goodbye, and I talked for a while with Wayne Thomas, who had played goal for Johnson at Wisconsin in the late 1960s and who had stopped in to say hello to his old coach. Thomas, who is now an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, had recently worked with Johnson at a hockey clinic. "He's an inspiration to me," Thomas said. "He hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm in all these years. I asked him how long he could do it, and he told me that in seven or eight years, when he got to be the age George Bush is now, he might give it up and run for president."

I never saw Johnson again. A week later, on the eve of the opening game of the Canada Cup, he was operated on for a brain tumor. On Nov. 26, he died at his home in Colorado Springs at age 60. He didn't waste a moment of those years.

The entire hockey world mourns him, but it is American hockey in particular that feels his loss. Johnson was American hockey. He succeeded at all levels of it. He began his coaching career in 1956 at Warroad (Minn.) High, moved on to Colorado College and then, in 1966, went to Wisconsin and began putting together what soon became the most successful college hockey program the country has ever had. Under Johnson, the Badgers were 367-175-23 and won three NCAA titles, in 1973, '77 and '81. Wisconsin hockey became an institution through one man's leadership.

He coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 and the U.S. entry in the Canada Cup in '81 and '84. In '82, he was lured to the NHL by Calgary. College coaches had never fared very well in the pros, but Johnson broke that barrier by amassing a 193-155-52 record over his five seasons with the Flames and taking them to the Stanley Cup finals in '86. That year, in what remains the finest job of NHL coaching I've seen, he steered Calgary past the Edmonton Oilers in a seven-game Smythe Division final; it was the only time between '84 and '88 that Wayne Gretzky's prepotent Oilers were beaten in the playoffs.

Johnson left the NHL in 1987 to become executive director of USA Hockey, but last season he returned behind the bench to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins. Six months before his death, he led the Penguins—a sub-.500 team the year before—to their first Stanley Cup title. Johnson is the only coach to win both NCAA and NHL championships.

Every day was a great day for hockey in his eyes, and he somehow sold that feeling to his players. Johnson was professorial in his approach to the game. He could talk for hours on the nuances of the Czechoslovak national team's power play. He could cite from memory what drills Soviet national coach Anatoly Tarasov put his team through in the mid-'60s. Johnson's teams played an amalgam of international styles, and the notebooks that Johnson kept during games, filled with obscure data, were legendary.

He was a rah-rah human being, bullish on the game and the human spirit, but he was strictly an intellectual coach. Johnson was not a taskmaster. His practices were filled with discussions of strategy. He seldom threatened or bullied his players. He did not motivate through fear. He motivated by conveying his love of a challenge and his desire that the players grasp the moment at hand. His players didn't want to win for him, or to spite him. Johnson's gift was in preparing a team so thoroughly that it believed, by god, it could win.

Johnson's legacy? I le believed in the U.S. hockey player, especially the college player, before it was fashionable to do so. Because of his success in using U.S. players, other coaches have followed his lead, and today the NHL, which 20 years ago was almost exclusively populated by Canadians, has scores of U.S. players. A dozen or more are of a caliber Johnson liked to refer to as "world class." All of them owe a debt to Bob Johnson. The fine thing is, most of them know it and honor his memory every time they strap on the blades.