Badger Bob

The New York Times explores the influence of former UW hockey coach Bob Johnson:

If there is such a thing as a hockey gene, Bob Johnson surely had it.

Twenty-five years after his death, Johnson’s influence extends from the N.H.L., where he helped pave the way for American college players and coaches in a league then dominated by Canadians, to N.C.A.A. hockey, which he endlessly promoted.

Johnson died of brain cancer at age 60 on Nov. 26, 1991, six months after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in his only year as coach.

Yet his signature saying, “It’s a great day for hockey,” is still painted above the stick rack outside the team’s locker room at PPG Paints Arena, which opened in 2010. It also hangs from a banner at Honnen Ice Arena at Colorado College, where Johnson started his coaching career in 1963.

Johnson built Wisconsin’s modern program beginning in 1966 and led the Badgers to three national titles from 1973 to 1981. His impact is felt in women’s college hockey, too, where his son Mark has coached the top-ranked Badgers to four national titles since 2002. And the youth hockey camp Bob Johnson started with Art Berglund in Aspen, Colo., in 1964 is still thriving, now run by Johnson’s sons Mark and Pete and his grandson Scott McConnell.

Johnson’s importance remains larger than games and championships won. Much of what he did beginning 50 years ago was greeted with rolled eyes and guffaws, but is now commonplace throughout the sport: an emphasis on conditioning, fundamentals practiced in on- and off-ice drills, and a creative, up-tempo style reliant on one-touch passes and carrying the puck into the offensive zone.

Jeff Sauer, who played for Johnson at Colorado College and succeeded him as coach at Wisconsin, remembers him emphasizing nutrition, even scrapping the traditional pregame steak dinner for toast, honey and chocolate milk so his players would have energy in the third period. He also recalls off-ice drills with tennis balls to promote dexterity.

Phil Bourque had played more than 200 N.H.L. games over six seasons before Johnson took over a veteran Penguins team in 1990. Bourque, a color commentator on the team’s television broadcasts since 2000, said Johnson often had the Penguins work on the most basic skills.

“Now, if I see a coach doing a real simple drill, I think of him,” he said.

“Ahead of his time” is how many describe Johnson, whose heartfelt belief that hockey should be fun and his embrace of innovation defined his coaching style. Exposed to the European game during his years coaching United States national teams, Johnson filled notebooks with drills and plays he witnessed, especially from the Soviet coach Anatoly Tarasov.


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