They reminisced about the old days and the 1977 University of Wisconsin hockey team that won the NCAA title in Detroit and still ranks as one of the most talented and successful ever assembled on the collegiate level.
Seated around the table in a Chicago restaurant on a Saturday night in late August were Mike Eaves, who scored the overtime winner in the semifinals; Steve Alley, who scored the overtime winner in the final, and Bob Johnson, the coach who scored a second national championship.
It was only days before Johnson, who had realized a lifelong dream last May by coaching the surprising Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup, was stricken with incurable brain cancer.
He died Tuesday at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., at 60.
On this August Saturday night in Chicago, the three friends laughed over dinner and talked hockey. Johnson loved to talk hockey. Alley, a stockbroker, lives and works in Chicago. Johnson and Eaves were in town with Team USA, which two nights earlier, had skated to a 3-3 draw with Team Canada at Chicago Stadium.
The exhibition was a prelude to the Canada Cup competition for which Johnson, the head coach, and Eaves, an assistant, had been preparing all summer. On this night, as usual, Badger Bob was on a power play, talking pucks and regaling everyone with story after story.
One of Johnson’s favorite stories involved Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch, the retired Wisconsin athletic director who was on hand for all three of Johnson’s NCAA titles with the Badgers.
During the Friday night semifinals in the 1977 tournament, Hirsch, a nervous sort, wandered into a VIP reception area in Detroit’s old rink, the Olympia, as the game went into overtime. The door closed behind him. Hirsch, unwittingly, had locked himself in the room.
After pounding on the door to no avail, Hirsch heard a loud noise. The rafters literally shook. Eaves had scored the game winner. Minutes later, someone rescued Hirsch, who shrugged and noted, “I figured we had won because we had more fans and they make more noise.”
Badger Bob loved telling that story on Crazy Legs.
So it went on this night in August, less than a week before Bob Johnson was rushed to a hospital in Pittsburgh for emergency surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor. Doctors, however, decided against removing another and prescribed radiation treatments. Johnson went home to Colorado in September.
“At one point,” Alley said, “Bob was talking about an 11-game winless streak he went through the year he was coaching in Calgary, the year the Flames went to the Stanley Cup finals (1986). He was talking about how tough it was to go through such a long winless streak. But, on the other hand, he was saying, ‘We were playing great.’
“I had to chuckle to myself because here he was, talking about how great they were playing, and still losing night after night. And I’m thinking, ‘Only the Hawk could have a positive attitude during an 11-game winless streak.’ ”
Johnson is still “the Hawk” to his former Wisconsin players and old friends in Madison. According to Johnson, he picked up the nickname at a summer hockey school. One of the skaters he was recruiting wore a golden helmet and called himself “the Golden Hawk.”
Not to be outdone by a student, Johnson got a helmet and painted it gold, appropriating the nickname for himself. Johnson had a big beak so it was a perfect match.
Everywhere else on the hockey map, he was Badger Bob, so named for his infectious college spirit. He was still Badger Bob nine years removed from Wisconsin and the Badgers, a tribute to the man and the hockey program he had built and left behind in 1982.
“He was the most enthusiastic person and coach I’ve ever been associated with,” said Hirsch, who was Wisconsin’s athletic director from 1969 through 1987.
“Bob was totally dedicated to the task he was undertaking at the time. When I first took the athletic director’s job, I remember getting a phone call while I was still on the West Coast from a woman who identified herself as Martha Johnson (Bob’s wife). The first thing she said to me was, ‘We need 20 scholarships.’ Martha was something.
“And Bob? Well, when he came in with something on his mind, it was hard to turn him down. When I came to Wisconsin, he was our one big positive note in the whole program and we hung our hat on it.”
On this night, a Saturday night in August, less than a week before Johnson would lose most of his ability to speak, by far the most frustrating loss to Johnson during his fight with cancer, Alley was once again struck by Johnson’s trademark attitude on hockey and life--one and the same for Badger Bob.
“What struck me while we were having dinner is how in life, people generally tend to dwell on the negative,” Alley said. “And here was a guy who had the unbelievable ability to dwell on the positive, even during an 11-game winless streak. I go back to that again. He just never let the weight of the situation get to him. It was great. He was just sitting there, telling stories at the table and mopping his face with his hand like he always does.”
Johnson had one distinctive mannerism. With either hand, but usually the right, he would slowly massage his forehead--eyes closed--then stroke his nose, then his chin. He would repeat the sequence, if he needed a little more time to consider a question. He was a “hands-on” conversationalist, often grabbing or tapping the arm of the person next to him or across from him. His enthusiasm was genuine.
Every day was a great day to be a Badger. And every day was a great day to be a hockey player. Wayne Thomas remembers the speeches. Thomas, who is now an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, was Johnson’s goaltender at Wisconsin in the late ‘60s, when Johnson was still selling hockey to the locals.
“We had a player, Dan Gilchrist, who was originally from Ottawa,” Thomas said. “But Bob made sure he was listed from Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories, in the game program. He wanted people to look at that and think, ‘Where’s Johnson finding these guys?’
“Bob didn’t do it to make himself look better. He did it because he thought it would help the program expand. He set definite goals. He was going to build a successful college program and he was going to be a successful coach in the NHL. Somehow, someway, he would always find a way to win.”
Bob Johnson loved to win. He also loved the way the Soviets played hockey and emulated their style. At Wisconsin, Johnson would don a U.S.S.R. sweater and play in weekly “Russian” games with his players, a tradition he carried into the NHL.
“Bob would never lose those games because he would always stack the sides in his favor,” Thomas said, laughing. “You know, in August, I got to watch Bob work with Team USA in Chicago and it was a great experience for me. I had seen him with the little kids in Aspen (at Johnson’s hockey school). But to see him on the ice with the 30 best American players at the time, and to have them all reacting the same way as the little kids, was pretty incredible. He had them eating out of his hand.”
Johnson was the voice of USA hockey and probably the finest ambassador the sport has ever had.
“There are certainly more Americans playing today than ever before,” he frequently pointed out. “They’re finally getting their chance. I guess this is one of the things that has disturbed me through the years. When I was a player at the University of Minnesota, we had an excellent hockey team. The last two years we won the NCAA championship (1953 and ’54).
“Players like Ken Yackle were skillful and should have had great careers in professional hockey. But for the Americans at that time, it was unheard of to play in the National Hockey League, which was a monopoly of Canadians. It’s really been an uphill struggle. But because of the population, the growth of the sport and the tremendous amount of rinks today, there’s no reason why Americans can’t make progress and really be dominant in the game. I see the day, and I see it my lifetime.”
Johnson delivered that particular speech on Nov. 11, 1976.
The message is still pertinent. On this night in August, less than a week before Bob Johnson would square off against an opponent he could not beat, Alley and Eaves found some comfort in knowing that Badger Bob was as committed as ever to coaching and living.
“He was just a winner,” Alley said. “There aren’t many people you can say that about without any hesitation, but you can say that about Bob Johnson.”
Mike Lucas has covered Wisconsin hockey for the Madison Capital Times since 1970.