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Clearly Wisconsin hockey is big time. But in the early years there was no Blue Line Club. Few people around Madison even knew what a blue line was. "I went to every service club in the city and talked," says Johnson. "I explained icing, offsides, everything. I challenged them to go to three games. If they didn't like it, I said not to come back."
The breakthrough came in 1969-70, the first season in which Wisconsin played in the WCHA. Compared with the previous year, attendance doubled to 6,651 fans a game. Wayne Thomas, an eight-year NHL veteran and now an assistant coach with the New York Rangers, was the goalie on that team. "I never dreamed about playing in the NHL," says Thomas. "Wisconsin wasn't a big hockey school when I was recruited. The Hawk asked a bunch of us if we thought we had enough talent to play in the WCHA, and we said yes. We came in fourth that first year and made the NCAAs. The football team wasn't winning, and the students were looking for a winner. Hockey games became a happening."
Those were, in Johnson's words, "the glory years." Students would line up for tickets to a 7:30 game as early as noon. Rubber chickens were dangled from the coliseum's balcony during games, and to this day Johnson can't watch a Badger highlight film from the early '70s without lamenting the passing of rubber chickens. "They don't do that anymore," he says. "Boy, you should have been here." The vicious "sieve" chant was perfected during those early days. It sounds like a medieval dirge—sieve, sieve, sieve...—as 8,670 arms point toward the opposing goaltender. Oldtimers tell the story of the North Dakota goalie who tried to leave a game after hearing the chant one time too often. He skated to the bench after a Badger goal, but his coach sent him back into the nets following a brief argument. Wisconsin promptly scored again. This time the goalie didn't bother with the bench. As sieve, sieve, sieve thundered throughout the coliseum, he skated directly to the locker room.
The Badgers' version of the Budweiser jingle that was used until recently in TV advertisements within the state (SCORECARD, Dec. 28-Jan. 4) originated at a hockey game. The song has since been adopted by Badger football and basketball fans. It started during the 1972-73 season, when the folks in Section G began screaming for a polka near the end of a win. They are a merry lot. The closest thing to a polka Mike Leckrone, the university bandmaster, could think of was "When you say Bud...da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da...." As the first rendition came to an end he encouraged the fans to substitute Wis-con-sin for Bud-wei-ser. The song immediately caught on. The band plays the tune once every game while Badger fans literally dance in the aisles. Hands go to hearts when they sing. "When you say Wis-con-sin! You've said it all."
Minnesota-Duluth Coach Gus Hendrickson remembers a game in which the Wisconsin crowd nearly drove his club into catatonia. "We came in here a few years ago and were ahead 3-2 in the third period, when we scored but had the goal called back," he says. "The fans gave Wisconsin a five-minute standing ovation—just for having the goal called back. I could see our guys looking around, thinking, 'Here it comes!' Wisconsin beat us 4-3. If you've got young players, those fans will nail you."
Badger fans also have quite an impact on the road. Some 3,000 of them journeyed to Providence for the 1978 NCAA tournament, and they were such a boon to the local economy that a representative from the Providence Chamber of Commerce made the 1,000-mile trip to Madison to present the Badgers with a 3½-foot trophy inscribed TO THE WORLD'S GREATEST FANS. AS if they needed any more encouragement.
One of the many stories from that weekend in Rhode Island involves Wisconsin Athletic Director Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch. He reportedly gave a local saloonkeeper $500 after the Badgers had been eliminated from the tournament and told the man to use the money to purchase as much Old Style beer as he could lay his hands on and then give a can to anybody who came into the bar wearing Badger red.
As avid as the Wisconsin fans are, however, they don't win hockey games. The Badgers' success hinges on Johnson. When he took a leave of absence in 1975-76 to coach the U.S. Olympic team to a fourth-place finish in Innsbruck, Wisconsin fell to 12-24-2, its first losing season since the sport's resurrection in Madison in 1962. When Johnson returned the next year, Wisconsin went 37-7-1 and won the NCAA title.
"Six or seven years ago, when everyone else was playing a real physical style, Bob was playing the skating and passing game," says Hendrickson. "He's never changed. As a tactician, he's excellent."
Last spring when Wisconsin upset Minnesota, Johnson's alma mater for whom he played baseball and hockey, for the national title, one coach remarked, "I've never seen one coach give a clinic to the other in an NCAA tournament game before." Outmanned, Johnson varied the Badgers' forechecking system to befuddle the Gophers and keep them pinned down in their own zone.