I was thrilled to receive a message a couple of months ago from Mike Cowan informing me that there would finally be a book written about Bob Johnson. I don’t think there is any question that Wisconsin hockey at all levels wouldn’t be where it is today without the influence of “Badger Bob” Johnson. The legendary Wisconsin coach turned the unsuspecting Badgers into a collegiate hockey power that still remains today.
My first contact with Bob Johnson came in 1980 when as an innocent unsuspecting twenty-two year old; I left college six credits short of graduation and chased a dream called "Wisconsin Hockey Report". It was intended to be the Let's Play Hockey of Wisconsin. While many questioned the timing and intelligence of the decision it was one that allowed me to meet one of those special people in your life that change you forever. Bob Johnson was that person for me. The four years I spent, and I mean literally spent, covering Wisconsin hockey, I was able to meet Coach Johnson several times and follow the career of one of hockey's greatest coaches. He taught me through his actions, his words and his success.
When I asked Coach Johnson to write a column for my newly constructed newspaper he did so without hesitation. When I asked to visit a practice, or set up an interview he was always more than willing to accommodate my requests. One of the highlights of my editor days was sitting down with him and his sons Mark & Peter for an interview.
Johnson's programs were always first class, a reflection of the man himself. He inspired his players through positive encouragement and mental challenge. He did not motivate through fear. His players didn't want to win for him or in spite of him, Badger Bob's gift was creating a culture that so thoroughly prepared his team that they believed without a doubt they would win. His enthusiasm for the sport of hockey was contagious. At his funeral in 1991, a former player praised him as someone who knew "how to make you better than you are." I have always thought that is perhaps the best compliment any coach could receive.
He touched many people with his magic and built teams that were closer together than most families. More than one Badger graduate likened Johnson to a "father" instead of a coach. While Thanksgiving week stirs the nation to reflect on the assassination of JFK, for me it will always be a week to remember Bob Johnson.
I can still recall typing, on a typewriter, a letter to him shortly after his cancer diagnosis in 1991. It was a most difficult assignment. What do you say to someone who has had such an impact on your life, without even knowing it? Coach Johnson passed away less than two weeks after I sent the letter. I don't know whether or not he ever read it.
Few of us are lucky enough to ever meet someone who represents the top of their profession. I feel extremely fortunate to have met Bob Johnson. I'll never forget standing outside the lockeroom in Duluth, in 1981, after the Badgers had upset the highly favored Gophers for the NCAA title. It was a great thrill to witness first hand, Johnson's final NCAA title at Wisconsin. As the thousands of Badger fans closed down Superior Street in Duluth, Johnson could be found cigar in hand mixing with his adoring fans. A happier man I have never seen. Three National Championships in nine years will do that.
Experts called it one of the greatest coaching jobs in the history of college hockey. Bob Johnson simply said, "You don't plan championships, they just happen." But deep down I knew better, because Bob Johnson had been planning for those championships all his life. Preparation is a key to any team’s success. Johnson’s pure enthusiasm for the game, his relentless work ethic, his volumes of trademark notepads, his skillful examination of skills and strategies and his tireless giving back to the game and are the traits that made him one of the game’s greatest coaches.
Johnson left the college ranks and went on to win a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 1991 just months before his passing. In a fitting tribute to the man who truly believed everyday was a great day for hockey, the Penguins repeated as Stanley Cup champions in 1992.
I learned a lot about hockey from Bob Johnson, but most important I learned about life. The end comes often without warning, without reason, without concern for whom you are or what you have to give. He was famous for saying that "every day is a great day for hockey", but he taught me that every day is a great day to be alive.
We all need to remember that.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org