When Johnson coached Team USA, all 23 of whose members were NHL players, to a surprising fourth-place finish in the Canada Cup series last fall, he gained more admirers. Said Team USA Goalie Tony Esposito, a 14-year pro, "No doubt about it, the man is a great coach. He's a great motivator, but levelheaded. None of that rah-rah stuff."
"International hockey has helped me gain a whole new view of the game," says Johnson. "I'm more knowledgeable every year. People use the term 'European hockey,' but it's all different—the Russians, the Czechs, the Swedes."
Perhaps no one has analyzed the diverse national styles more thoroughly. Johnson can rattle off not only how each country plays but also how it practices, and to vary Badger workouts, he occasionally has a Russian Day or a Swedish Day or a Canadian Day. His alltime favorite practice—and Johnson can barely contain himself when recalling it—was a 1965 session the Soviets held under Coach Anatoly Tarasov, the Russian master, in Colorado Springs. Johnson wrote down each of the 10 drills they did that day. "The Russians didn't play the Canadian pros until 1972," he says, "but they were as good then as they are now. They spend so much time on conditioning. They've tried to turn every one of their players into Superman, and they've done a great job of it. But I think the Czechs do a better job in a lot of areas, like penalty-killing and power plays."
Johnson incorporated the Czechoslovakian power play—in which the wings stay wide and one man acts as a decoy in front of the net—into Wisconsin's offense several years ago, and in 1976-77 the Badgers scored an astounding 93 power-play goals in 45 games. Now everybody is using it. He also has an "umbrella" power play, with two men in front of the goal and three in an umbrella at the top of the offensive zone, and a "Boston" power play, modeled after the one used by the Bobby Orr-Phil Esposito Bruins. Now he's fooling around with a "Gretzky" power play, featuring one man behind the net.
The most important element in all these plays is the ability of the players to move the puck. One-touch passing, he calls it, and no one does that better than the Swedes. So the Badgers have Swedish drills in which they pass—bing-bing-bing—around a zone, never stopping the puck. When it comes time to shoot, they do so off the pass. The result of all this is that year-in, year-out, Wisconsin has the best power play in college hockey, and this season the Badgers are scoring on 30.5% of their chances.
"The WCHA has an ideal situation for the development of hockey players," says Johnson. "First, we've got a four-to-five-week training camp before our first game. Second, we practice twice as much as we play. Third, we have a long season—six months."
When Johnson arrived at Wisconsin, six former college players were in the NHL. Now there are 59. The knock used to be that the colleges didn't play enough games to prepare a player for the grueling NHL schedule. Today many NHL organizations believe the Canadian junior league teams, which play as many as 100 times a season, don't hold enough practices, and consequently a lot of players come into the league lacking fundamental skills and team discipline.
"I've always believed in the college programs," says Ron Caron, director of personnel and recruiting for the Montreal Canadiens. "We used to have that territory all to ourselves, but now every team's taking college players." Two of Montreal's top draft choices, Chris Chelios (second round), and Newberry (third round) are at Wisconsin. "Every time I go there I see the way the players respect Johnson," says Caron. "Newberry is playing with much more intensity now. With the limited number of games they play, each one is important. I've heard nothing but good words about Johnson, not only about the way he teaches fundamentals, but about the way he teaches intensity, fortitude and the value of a team activity."
Johnson carries the team concept to an extreme. The players receive no money for food on the road; all meals are taken together. When classes aren't in session, he gets the team up by 9:30 to play volleyball or soccer. Why? "If I'm a player on the fourth line and you're a John Newberry, maybe in volleyball I'm a John Newberry and you're a player on the fourth line," Johnson says. "That's important for a team." The Badgers do flexibility exercises every day together, twice on game days, and Johnson has even been known to take the players on walks, although he concedes, "They might not appreciate that." WCHA games are played on Friday and Saturday nights, and every Thursday evening Johnson shows the team a hockey film, which he narrates.
On Sundays, an off day officially, Johnson has made a tradition out of "the Russian games"—voluntary, free-wheeling, no-check sessions in which Badger players, alumni and friends come out to skate. Johnson is always the late Valery Kharlamov, former star of the U.S.S.R. team. The opposition is "the Canadians," unless, of course, a particularly inept group shows up, in which case the Koreans take on the Chinese. Johnson always takes the best goalie for his team, and has been known to bait the losing team into returning to center ice to shake his "Russian" team's hands. If an account of the game appears on the team bulletin board Monday morning, obnoxiously extolling the exploits of Kharlamov, no one has to guess who wrote it.