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Creating a new legacy: The 1983 NCAA champion Badgers


1983 NCAA Champions

Feb. 7, 2013

This flashback on Wisconsin's 1983 NCAA championship was excerpted from Mike Lucas' book "Five Golden Rings: The Saga of Wisconsin Hockey." It was published in 1998, before the Badgers added a sixth national title in 2006.

T

he truth in Duluth. The Badgers were bad.

The 12-game winning streak in December and January seemed like a distant memory.

After an early February loss at Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin's record fell to an unacceptable 11-8-2 in the WCHA and the player's attitude had fallen to a season-low because of a rash of penalties, including a major and misconduct, which had marred the Friday night series opener.

How ugly was it? The Badgers took 17 penalties.

"Our friends, parents and even our enemies told us we were terrible on Friday,'' said center John Johannson. "Maybe we needed to hear that. Everybody was jumping down everybody's throat.''

The lack of discipline on the ice so disturbed UW head coach Jeff Sauer that for once he didn't mince words. After the game, he admitted that he was ashamed and embarrassed; so much so that he made sure everybody understood the depth of his anger.

"Everyone felt lousy,'' said defenseman Chris Chelios, "and the coach was pretty mad.''

The following day, Sauer met with the team as he had customarily throughout the season. But he carried a different mind-set into the meeting where he announced that there would be changes; lineup changes and attitude changes, or else.

That Saturday night, the Badgers bounced back to gain a weekend split.

It would be the springboard to the 1983 national championship.

"Up until then, I don't know if the players really knew who I was,'' said Sauer, who had replaced the legendary Bob Johnson. "Maybe we finally got our point across. I think the team has always respected me, but that was the first time in a coaching situation that something had to be done.

Many UW fans at the Final Four were wearing baseball caps with the logo, “Grand Slam in Grand Forks.” This was not about a Denny’s breakfast but a fourth national championship.

"I just tried to do some things any coach would have done to shake up things. But, like I said at the time, the changes were unimportant. The attitude of the team was the most important thing. We were ready to play that Saturday night in Duluth. We could have thrown in the towel but we didn't.''

The truth in Duluth.       

"He (Sauer) had sat down with us before but not as sternly,'' said defenseman Bruce Driver, who didn't play against the Bulldogs because of an injury. "Maybe that was the first time the players really listened to him and everything sank in.    

"Finally it dawned on us that what he was saying was true and that he was right. He proved to the players that he was concerned with each individual and we realized that we weren't going anywhere unless we started thinking about the team, and not ourselves.''     

The truth in Duluth.

"By shaking up some people, he shaped everyone up,'' said Paul Houck, the team's leading scorer. "Up until that point, I don't think he was enforcing his thoughts. But we screwed up that one game and he definitely enforced his discipline. We were getting complacent with our jobs.''

Ted Pearson was a player who was benched in Duluth.

"I know everyone started working harder in practice after that,'' said Pearson, a pesky winger and sparkplug. "We took it upon ourselves. But he (Sauer) did bring it about by asserting himself. He started talking with us more and he started getting more involved with the team.''

Sauer refrained from taking the credit for any turnaround, choosing instead to compliment the players for the success. He knew, after all, this was a team which had to reinvent itself on offense after losing so many scorers off the previous season's NCAA runner-up.

Gone were John Newberry, Brian Mullen, Ron Vincent, Pete Johnson and Ken Keryluk. They had combined for 122 goals. Todd Lecy was the leading returning goal scorer with 17. Pat Flatley, a No. 1 pick of the Islanders, scored 16 as a freshman. Newberry and Mullen turned pro. Flatley could have.

The Badgers not only opened the season without Driver, an All-American, who was sidelined with a hyper-extended knee, but they were without their top two goaltenders. Marc Behrend had some cartilage removed from his knee in mid-October and Terry Kleisinger got scoped in late October.

Elroy Hirsch
UW director of athletics Elroy Hirsch helped the Badgers celebrate their fourth NCAA title.

Gary Baxter, a freshman goalie from Toronto, filled the void in their absence. Speaking to the expectations, Sauer said, "This was a team that had a lot to prove. A lot of people thought we wouldn't be very good. But the players began believing in themselves as the season progressed.''

Sauer was definitely in a fish bowl.

"There was a lot of pressure at first on me personally,'' he admitted. "People were asking, `Is he a good enough coach? Should he be the coach at Wisconsin?' But I never questioned myself. I've been coaching too long to do something like that, and I've always had faith that I could coach.''

Starting with that Saturday night win in Duluth, the Badgers went on a defining 13-1-1 run. The only loss was to Minnesota at the end of the regular season. The tie came in the total goals WCHA playoff opener at North Dakota. The following night, Wisconsin survived, 6-5, in triple overtime.

It will go down as an all-time classic in the series between the two rivals.

Trailing 5-4 in the closing minute, Sauer pulled his goaltender, Behrend, in favor of a sixth attacker, Chelios. With 12 seconds left in regulation, Chelios scored on a rebound to send the game into overtime. "I just swung as hard as I could; I was ready to knock everything in the net,'' Chelios said.

In the third period, the Badgers rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits.

"But Chelios' goal,'' Sauer said, "was definitely the biggest of the season.''

At 1:02 of the third overtime, Pearson scored what everyone thought was the game-winner. The players had even begun shaking hands. But there was a catch. Both teams had been informed by referees John Ricci and Medo Martinello that there would be a stick check on the winning goal.

"I measured my stick (before the start of overtime) and so did two other guys in the locker room and it was legal,'' Pearson pleaded. "When the linesman came over to me after I scored, I handed him the stick because I knew that there would be no problem.''

Think again.

Martinello measured Pearson's stick and ruled that it was illegal - thus the goal was disallowed and Pearson was assessed a two-minute minor penalty. "My equipment was so wet and heavy that I could hardly move and I was wondering where I was going to get the extra energy,'' Behrend said.

Not to worry. Against all odds -- North Dakota had not given up a short-handed goal all season -- Houck delivered in the clutch by scoring a shorthanded goal at 1:28 of the third overtime to lift the Badgers to a 7-6 win in total goals. He was legal, too. He had changed sticks at the end of regulation.

"The second time I shook hands with (North Dakota's) Dave Tippett, we were laughing,'' Flatley said. "At least I was laughing. I can't explain what I felt. I was in awe of what happened.''

Raising 1983 championship banner
At the start of the 1984 season, the Badgers were able to add a fourth national title banner to the rafters at the Coliseum.

Without missing a beat, the Badgers then stormed into Williams Arena and completed their impressive road sweep of the two opponents - Minnesota and North Dakota - that finished above them in the WCHA during the regular season. By doing so, they earned the No. 1 seed in the West.

With home ice in the NCAA quarterfinals, the Badgers dominated outmanned St. Lawrence, 6-2 and 7-1. That sent them back to North Dakota and the Winter Sports Center, the site of the Final Four. Many UW fans were wearing baseball caps with the logo, "Grand Slam in Grand Forks.''

This was not about a Denny's breakfast but a fourth national championship.

Sauer was not wearing a cap, but he was wearing a smile that stretched from Fargo to Winnipeg after inching one game closer to his first NCAA title as a coach after the Badgers stoned Providence, 2-0. Houck and Jim Johannson (John's brother) scored the goals. Behrend had to make only 17 saves.

"There's tremendous pressure on us,'' acknowledged John Johannson, pointing to the fact that Wisconsin would be making a third consecutive appearance in the NCAA championship game. "We're the favorites and if we don't win, we'll be considered failures.''

The Badgers had anticipated that they would draw Minnesota in the finals, but Harvard pulled off a major upset by stunning the Gophers 5-3. "This is a great night for Harvard hockey,'' said Crimson coach Billy Cleary, who was Ryan O'Neal's double in the movie, "Love Story.''

Wisconsin could not have asked for a better script.

"We've earned our way here,'' Flatley said, "and now we have to finish the job.''

In the first period of the Providence game, Flatley was injured when he was inadvertently kicked by the Eastern referee, Joe Faucette. Flatley returned to the locker room for some treatment for what was described as a hip pointer. He came back and took his regular shifts in the second and third period.

Flatley was in noticeable pain. But he didn't miss a shift against Harvard and scored the first goals in Wisconsin's 6-2 victory. How's that for leading by example? As a reward, Flately was selected to the All-Tournament team, along with Behrend who was named MVP, again.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't feel that good the whole tournament,'' said Behrend, who went unbeaten in his final 12 games while posting an overall record of 17-1-1. "It's a nice honor,'' he said of the MVP award, which he also won in '81, "but I don't deserve it. The team earned this title.''

Flatley personified the toughness that this team possessed. "During the Harvard game,'' said center Dave Maley, "I kept going over to him and I wanted him to tell me if he was hurting. But all he would say was, `No way. Not this game. It means too much.' He never complained, never said a word.''

That was the Flatley way.

"Sure I hurt,'' he said. "And I can't tell you how sore I was. But adrenaline takes over in a championship game. We had a lot of guys who were banged up. But in sports you have to overcome the little things. All I ever wanted was that ring, the championship ring, and now I've got one.''

And the Badgers got theirs - the Grand Slam in Grand Forks.

Sauer was asked if he had finally escaped the long shadow of Bob Johnson. "There will always be that comparison,'' he said. "The man was here for so many years and he did such a tremendous job. I'm just glad that I've been able to write a little piece of history in terms of keeping the tradition going.''

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