Nov. 2, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Mark Johnson got the perfect “house-warming’’ gift with the opening of LaBahn Arena.
The Wisconsin women’s hockey coach received a typewritten thesis.
The topic? Coaching high school hockey.
The author? Robert N. Johnson.
The year? 1960.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’’ said Mark Johnson, the son of Robert N. Johnson, aka "Badger" Bob.
The thesis was completed 52 years ago during the fall quarter at the University of Minnesota.
“Even back then,’’ Mark said, “he was ahead of the curve.’’
The leather-bound keepsake now sits atop his office desk at LaBahn Arena.
“A lot of things that were in the thesis,’’ he said, “you could still implement today.’’
Mark began reading from the Table of Contents.
“It talks about facilities, selecting the hockey rink location, and construction of the rink,’’ he said.
“It talks about equipment and how you go about selecting the equipment.
“It talks about organization and administration.
“It talks about preseason conditioning.
“It talks about individual play, team play, offensive play, defensive play,
“It talks about the fundamentals of hockey.’’
It spoke to Bob Johnson’s life.
“That’s who he was,’’ Mark said. “It’s pretty fascinating.’’
Friday night will be a great night for hockey in Madison.
The Bob Johnson Rink at the Kohl Center will be dedicated.
“His legacy is going to live on forever,’’ said Mark.
For one generation of Badger hockey fans, he said, “They will see his name on the ice and they will remember who he was, what he did and what he accomplished here.’’
For another generation of Badger hockey fans, he said, “They might not know who he was, but they may go home and look up his credentials and learn what his gift was.’’
“Passion,’’ said UW men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves. “No question, it was his passion.’’
Theran Welsh, a former All-American defenseman, was playing golf this past summer with some business associates when Bob Johnson’s name came up in conversation.
One thing led to another, and a member of the foursome mentioned that Johnson’s thesis had been handed down in his family. Never mind how it wound up there,
The thesis was turned over to Welsh.
“And I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this in Mark’s hands,’’ he said.
In 1981, Johnson coached the Badgers to their third – and his final – national championship. Welsh, a native of Weldon, Saskatchewan, was one of the leaders of that team.
“You get to run into people during your life who are very passionate about something,’’ said Welsh, who was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Bob’s passion for ice hockey was significant. I don’t remember being around him when he wasn’t talking hockey.’’
There was a cutting edge flavor to his coaching; above and beyond the norm.
“When I first got here,’’ Welsh said of the late ‘70s, “we were doing the ‘Left Wing Lock.’’’
Decades later, Scotty Bowman popularized the strategy with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Czechs were actually given credit for coming up with the Left Wing Lock, or neutral zone trap, in an effort to slow down the Russians in the ‘70s.
Badger Bob was a student of the international game and incorporated what he had learned overseas with what he was doing at Wisconsin.
“Bob was all about leadership,’’ said Welsh, a CPA with SVA Accounting and a color analyst on the Wisconsin Public Television’s tape-delayed broadcasts of UW hockey.
“He’d say, ‘Let’s face it, you’re not all goal-scorers. But you have ability and if you have the right passion and the right attitude, you can make a contribution to a team. What are you going to do?’
“We talk to our kids about that all the time.’’
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Steve Alley popped his head into Mark Johnson’s office to say hello and Johnson returned the greeting by saying, “Hey, look, what Theran just gave me.’’
“Talk about a guy who was ahead of his time,’’ gushed Alley after paging through the dissertation. “Are you kidding me? Nobody was talking about this stuff in the ‘60s.’’
So, how would Bob Johnson’s style of coaching have translated?
“It would be better today than ever,’’ said Alley, who played on two NCAA championship teams and the 1976 Olympic team for Johnson. “And he would be better received than ever.
“That’s because the athletes are smarter; they’ve learned more about physical conditioning and training. Today, it’s all part of the game. Back in the day, it was deemed unattractive.’’
Some old school coaches were afraid to change and feared the unknown.
Bob embraced innovation and knowledge.
He also embraced the fan base.
Badger Bob loved Badger Nation.
“Bob was always selling hockey, everywhere he went, he was selling hockey and if it wasn’t to the players, it was to the fans,’’ said Alley, who morphed into a Johnson play-by-play.
“Talking about the previous game, he’d say, ‘In the third period, Tim Dool went crazy in the corner, the fans were going wild and I looked down the bench and our players were all standing up…’
You could almost visualize Johnson mopping his forehead and his nose with his hand.
“Bob loved that theater,’’ Alley said. “He not only loved seeing his players do well and win, but he loved the fans. He loved the fact that they were getting excited about the game.’’
Badger Bob also loved the Russian games on Sunday mornings.
“He always wore Valery Kharlmov’s No. 17 jersey,’’ Alley recalled fondly. “And he’d stack the teams in his favor. He’d take the best players. Usually, he’d always have Craig Norwich on his side.’’’
Norwich was a first-team All-American.
“Even though Bob was beyond his years as a player,’’ Alley said, “he wanted to be out there himself – skating and scoring goals. And everybody played right along with it.’’
That included one of Alley’s teammates on the ’77 championship team: Mike Eaves.
“I truly love coming to the rink,’’ Eaves said of Bob Johnson’s impact on his coaching.
Recently, he noted, “For the guys that didn’t travel (to Duluth), we have ice times on Sundays.’’
When he skates, Eaves doesn’t wear Kharlmov’s 17, though he did wear No. 17 as a Badger.
“That’s one of the best times of my week,’’ he said, “to get on the ice and create something that helps them become better hockey players … that’s what gets me juiced.’’
That’s in keeping with the Bob Johnson spirit.
“He was one of hockey’s legends, truly a legend,’’ Alley said. “If you went to Sweden and asked the people in hockey circles, who Bob Johnson was, they’d know.
“He’s known around the world as Badger Bob.’’
Alley will be present for the rink dedication, and his thoughts will be with the “glue’’ in the Johnson family, Bob’s wife, Martha Johnson, who’s now living in San Diego.
“She was such a great supporter of Bob and hockey,’’ he said. “She could see the passion and the enthusiasm and all the good that he was doing, and she was right there; every step of the way.
“I remember her sitting up in a corner of the Coliseum -- ringing that cowbell during games -- she was famous in her own right. Martha was part of the recruiting package.’’
Martha Johnson was scheduled to drop the ceremonial puck for the opening faceoff.
“But she’s unable to travel right now,’’ Mark Johnson said. “And that’s a bummer.’’
But she will be here in spirit Friday night.
“And she’ll have a smile on her face,’’ Mark said.
On April 1, 1966, UW athletic director Ivy Williamson announced Colorado College coach Bob Johnson would take over the Badger hockey program from John Riley, the interim coach.
The 35-year-old Johnson, who had an overall record of 29-51-3 during his three seasons with the Tigers, had been undefeated (4-0) against the Badgers. Johnson’s first-year salary was $13,000.
“I see no reason why we can’t keep the program moving all the way to the top,’’ Johnson said at his press conference. “John Riley has done a wonderful job here. Now, it’s up to me to carry on.
“Wisconsin seems to me to be a natural area for hockey. It’s a great game and once a boy learns the ropes he falls in love with it. Once they get going, they’ll feel it’s the only winter sport to play.’’
Mark Johnson can now edit that comment to include once a girl learns the ropes ...
“I think the enjoyment he would really take away today is watching these young ladies come into the rink,’’ Mark said of his UW women’s hockey players.
Just imagine, too, the smile on Badger Bob’s face, he said, “Watching these ladies carry their bags and sticks into the rink and leaving with sweat on their foreheads and cheeks rosy red …’’
All a direct result, he added, “Of getting a chance to play this great game.’’
Friday night will be a great night for hockey at the Bob Johnson Rink.
As are all nights and all days.
“He lived and breathed that,’’ Mark said, “and people will remember him because of it.’’