Nov. 22, 2012
By MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Armed with impeccable communication skills, Brian Engblom has never been at a loss for words; befitting his role as a hockey analyst for the NBC Sports Network, the Colorado Avalanche and the Winnipeg Jets.
Given this backdrop, he had no trouble finding one word to describe Bob Johnson.
“Enthusiasm,’’ he said. “He had it in spades. It just came out of his pores.’’
Engblom, a stylish defenseman out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, came under Johnson’s influence in the mid-‘70s during his two seasons at Wisconsin. After earning All-WCHA and All-American honors, Engblom was the 22nd overall pick in the 1975 entry draft and signed with the Montreal Canadiens.
“When the pro situation came around,’’ he said, “I just felt like I was ready.’’
Nearly four decades later, Engblom will get to renew some old friendships in Madison and revisit his earliest memories with the Badgers when he serves as Wisconsin’s honorary captain for the Saturday night matchup against Minnesota State at the Kohl Center.
Aware that the game will be played on the Bob Johnson Rink, the 57-year-old Engblom said, “He was the most enthusiastic man – still – that I’ve ever met, especially for the game of hockey. He set the tone for everyone by the way he talked and commanded the room. It was very infectious.’’
Johnson was very cutting edge, too.
“He loved the Russians and the European game and he thought the North American game had to make major changes,’’ said Engblom, who now lives in Denver. ”In the ‘70s, it was bang and crash; all the fighting and stupid stuff. It was kind of a bad time in the NHL when you look back on it now.
“Part of it was the WHA (World Hockey Association) and the competition. There wasn’t enough talent to go around for two leagues. Because of that, fighting became more and more popular; especially in the States. That’s what they promoted. I won’t blame it all on the Broad Street Bullies.
“But the game was going down a road that Bob certainly wasn’t fond of. Where’s the skill level? Why has it gone? The Europeans and the Russians were playing a very different game. He was a big fan of what they were doing and he implemented a lot of the puck movement, especially on power plays.’
As a UW freshman, Engblom lived in the dorms with David McNab, now the assistant general manager of the Anaheim Ducks. As a sophomore, he lived with George Gwozdecky, the head coach at the University of Denver since 1994. Gwozdecky has won two NCAA championships.
The NBC Sports Network will televise the Nov. 30 game in Denver between the Pioneers and Badgers and Engblom will be the color analyst. Obviously, he will have plenty of material on Gwozdecky. They still see each other from time to time and Engblom attended a recent DU game.
Meanwhile, UW head coach Mike Eaves is another former teammate.
“Mike was a terrific player on both sides of the puck, no doubt about it,’’ Engblom said. “He was so smart defensively and talented. I remember his intensity very well. He was very focused.
“I’ve come across some of the Wisconsin players who are in the NHL now and they all say, ‘Coach Eaves is no walk in the park. He’s tough on us.’
“But he has made them better players. That’s why they get to the NHL. He has taught them a lot and pushed them hard enough to get them to where they want to go.’’
During his formative years as UW hockey player, Engblom came under the wing of a couple of prominent Madison families – the Suters and the Andringas – who left quite an impression.
“The first time I met Ryan Suter,’’ Engblom said, “I looked at him and I started to chuckle thinking, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a Suter all right.’ He plays like his uncle a lot. Gary Suter was a helluva player and had a fabulous career in the NHL.’'
Engblom did OK for himself, too, as a member of three Stanley Cup champions in Montreal. He also skated for the Washington Capitals, the Los Angeles Kings, the Buffalo Sabres and the Calgary Flames. At the end of his 11 NHL seasons, he felt like he needed to make a clean break from the sport.
“Near the end of my career,’’ he recounted, “some people said that I should get into broadcasting, but I hadn’t thought about it much. After I retired, I had surgery on my neck, and I felt like I just had to get away from the game for a little bit. So I did for about three years.’’
He sold advertising for awhile. He worked for Merrill Lynch. But he couldn’t get hockey out of his system. He missed the sport. Los Angeles Kings announcer Nick Nickson opened the door to Engblom for a career in broadcasting by helping him get a job with the Kings radio network.
Nickson was the radio play-by-play voice while Bob Miller, the original voice of the Badgers, handled the play-by-play on television. Nickson and Miller had teamed up for years before the assignments were split. Miller, a Hall of Famer, has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When ESPN2 was launched in 1993, the network needed to find some hockey people to handle its coverage. Engblom auditioned for the late Tom Mees. “We sat down in front of a monitor and watched a game together,’’ Engblom said, “A couple of bosses were listening in the control room.’’
When he got back on a plane for LA, he was puzzled by the interviewing process.
“I thought, ‘Ok, I don’t think I’ll be doing TV,’’’ he remembered.
Two weeks later, he got a call asking if he was interesting in doing some ESPN2 games.
“I was still dumbfounded by it all,’’ he admitted. “But I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’’’
His assignments increased from year to year and ESPN offered him a full-time deal in 1995.
His career has taken off and flourished since then.
“And now I’m working for three different masters,’’ said Engblom, noting his contracts with the NBC Sports Network, Altitude Sports and Entertainment (Avalanche) and TSN-Jets (Winnipeg)
Right now, of course, he’s not working because of the NHL lockout.
Is Engblom frustrated? Is he angry?
“Yes to both,’’ he said. “I’m frustrated beyond words. And, yes, it makes me angry, for sure. If they’re crazy enough to write off the whole season, I’m going to lose my mind. There’s no reason for that to happen again. It was crazy the last time around (2004-2005).
“This would be absurd if they can’t get together and get something done. It’s incredibly frustrating as far as I’m concerned. People are more upset this time around than they were when the whole season was lost because it just feels like greed. That’s the word that everybody is using.’’
Told you that he was good with words.