Commentary

No one championed hockey in the U.S. more than "Badger" Bob

Updated: February 19, 2008, 10:45 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Longtime tough guy Tim Hunter perhaps caught the flavor of the man best.

"He didn't just have a love for the game," said Hunter, now an assistant coach of the San Jose Sharks. "He had a lust for the game."

After the recent Hockey Weekend Across America, what better time to reminisce about one of the imperishable personalities and most influential people the game has ever seen or enjoyed?

Because no one cared for the game itself and championed hockey in the United States more than "Badger" Bob Johnson.

[+] EnlargeBob Johnson
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesBob Johnson's achievements went beyond his three NCAA titles at the University of Wisconsin.

He was a mass of idiosyncrasies. The nose-tugging. The seven-point plans. The climbing-mountains analogies. The golf course analogies. Going into the sauna to think. The restless curiosity. Always jotting things down in a notebook.

Those still coherent from the mid-'80s remember a game in Washington. The Flames arrived at the hotel in Landover, Md., to find hundreds of Liz Montgomery (the star of "Bewitched") look-alikes crowding the lobby. A hairdressers' convention was in full swing. Badger was oblivious. It could've been a convention of anvil salesmen. He only wanted to talk hockey.

His scope and achievements went far beyond the three NCAA titles at the University of Wisconsin, the run to the 1986 Stanley Cup finals while in charge of the Calgary Flames or, his crowning achievement, the 1991 Cup win with the Mario Lemieux-propelled Penguins months before he was diagnosed with brain cancer, which ultimately killed him.

Johnson left an indelible imprint on anyone who met him. And hockey in the United States would be much the poorer today if he'd fallen head over heels for, say, baseball or golf.

"Badger was like medicine," said Cliff Fletcher, the man who hired Johnson to coach the Flames and is currently interim GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He once outfitted a Calgary Flames practice goaltender in an opposing Edmonton Oilers' sweater during a playoff-series practice.

"College coach!" harrumphed Glen Sather.

"I was coaching against the Russians when he was still in his diapers!" countered Badger Bob.

His optimism was contagious and, in truth, a bit baffling. Former Flames and Sharks defenseman Gary Suter grew up idolizing the Badgers and the Badger before getting the opportunity to play for the man in Calgary.

"He came into the room once and asked me, 'How ya feelin', Suter? On a scale of 1-10, how do you feel?' So I say: 'A 10, coach!' Then he goes over, punches Joel Otto in the shoulder and says, 'And how about you, Otto?' Joel answers, 'I'm an 11, coach!'

"So he turns around, glares at me and yells, 'So Suter, what the hell's the matter with you?!'"

Badger made players better. That was his business.

"He really used to push Al MacInnis hard," Al MacNeil says. "After he'd worked with him a while this one day, he turned his attention to someone else. Al, bent over and gasping for air by now, skates slowly over to the bench and sits down. Exhausted.

"Badger's busy with another guy until he glances over and just happens to see MacInnis taking that breather on the bench. He forgets all about what he's doing and makes a beeline for him, waving his arms and yelling, 'Allan! Allan! Get up son. You've gotta love it!'"

It seems impossible he's been gone 16 years now, the man who made "It's a great day for hockey!" not so much a slogan but a rallying cry.

Anyone who ever came in contact with Johnson has a keepsake Badger story or Badger-ism. His favorite all-time movie was "The Natural." He loved the bit at the end when Roy Hobbs hit the 3-2 pitch so hard he broke a bank of lights (in slow-motion, of course), blood seeping through the side of his jersey.

The Badger's optimism knew no bounds. Old-timers in Calgary still chuckle remembering Johnson's disbelief after his Flames had been thrashed 9-0 at home by the Hartford Whalers, pushing his team's franchise-record 11-game losing streak.

"I don't," he lectured the sports writers, "understand people talking about our so-called slump."

"You could've fallen into the room off a spaceship and not realized how bad it was if you were listening to Badger," Fletcher said.

Johnson and Herb Brooks, two iconic U.S. college hockey coaches, actually had a pretty healthy rivalry, as if they were both bidding for some glittering, golden prize.

One time during a Canada Cup, a couple was in line behind Badger Bob at Dunn's, a fabled smoked meat deli in Montreal. Badger had on his U.S. hockey track suit. The woman, noticing the red, white and blue duds, prodded her husband in the ribs.

"That man …" she said quizzically. "I think he's someone famous. Isn't it that … hockey guy?"

Her husband, interested now, stared at Badger, chest swelling in pride. "I know who it is!" exclaimed the husband. "That is Herbie Brooks!"

Besides his NHL stops, he'd coached the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, multiple U.S. entries in the Canada Cup (1981, 1984, 1987) and the U.S. national team (1973-75, 1981).

He left us far too soon, but there can be no denying he packed two lifetimes in those 60 years.

"Coaching is like living in a cave. Red Berenson told me that one night in Florida," Badger said. "You're committed to it 24 hours a day. But after eight or nine months, the coach can venture out into the day, out of the dark of the cave. He looks to his left and looks to his right, and there it is … the real world."

One of the humbling moments from a long, middling sportswriting career was being allowed to see him when, dying from cancer, he had been transported from the hospital in Colorado Springs to Denver to watch a preseason game between the two NHL clubs he coached, the Flames and Penguins.

He had been undergoing pulverizing chemo treatments. His body was wasting away. But that light still shone from his eyes.

"He was never in this for what it could do for him," said former NHL goalie Tom Barrasso on the sad day of Johnson's passing on Nov. 26, 1991. "He was interested in what he could do for the team, for the game. I'd say that's a pretty unique individual in today's sports era, wouldn't you?"

Was then. Is now.

Anyone who ever met him knows Johnson is looking down from the tallest mountain, the 18th hole on the most serene golf course, proud of the strides the game, his game, has made in his native country.

It was a great weekend for hockey, Badger.

"Badger paved the way for Americans to play at [the NHL] level," Suter said. "Before guys like him, hockey was a Canadian-only game. People like him had a lot to do with guys like me making it.

"We owe him a lot."

Such people may leave us, but they never really say goodbye.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.