As the film threaded through the projector—tic-tic-tic-tic—the hawk-nosed man operating the machine began to twitch with excitement. "This one's really good," Bob Johnson said. "It's an excellent film. You don't want to miss this one, boy. Everything you need to know about Badger hockey is here." When Johnson is enthused, which is 90% of the time, he enunciates his words with relish, as if they were being recorded for posterity. His china-blue eyes shine and dart about. He bares his teeth.
On this occasion Johnson was showing highlights of the University of Wisconsin's 1972-73 hockey season, which culminated in the Badgers' first NCAA championship. They repeated in 1977 and in 1981, but the highlight films of those successes lack the drama of that 1973 classic. Oh, what a recruiting tool! In the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in Boston Garden. Wisconsin fell behind Cornell 4-0, and then 5-2 in the third period. "We're going to win this one, boy. Don't go away!" said Johnson as the last of the Cornell goals was shown. He was absolutely delighted by the prospect. Badger hockey would prevail. A comeback win, preserved on celluloid! And sure enough, Wisconsin scored three late goals to tie the score and then won 6-5 in overtime.
"I told you!" Johnson said. "The Year of the Champions. They did a great job with that film. You can't leave yet. Wait a minute, this next one's of the 1977 tournament in Detroit. What a tremendous tournament. From Madison to Motown. We won two games in overtime. You're going to love this. Some of the greatest names in Badger hockey history...John Taft...Mark Johnson...Craig Norwich...." Tic-tic-tic-tic-tic. The film was rolling.
What you're watching, ladies and gentlemen, is the best-run, best-promoted, most enthusiastically supported, best-coached, most profitable college hockey program anywhere. That it's in Madison instead of Boston or Minneapolis is exclusively because of the efforts of the man behind the proboscis. Badger Bob Johnson, 50, also affectionately known as the Hawk. Johnson, a Minnesotan by birth, has become one of the most beloved sports figures in Wisconsin since taking over the Badgers' fledgling hockey program in 1966-67.
"This is the only place where they boo the hockey writers and cheer the coach," cracked one of Johnson's colleagues during a recent road trip to Madison. Johnson's teams have a .678 winning percentage (358-168-23). They have won three NCAA championships since 1973; in the same span, the Wisconsin football team has had three winning seasons. Six times in the past 12 years the Badgers have made the NCAA semis.
They also have led the country in home attendance every year since 1970, and in 1980-81 they outdrew the school's basketball team by almost 2,000 fans a game. In 24 appearances last season at the 8,670-seat Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison, the Badgers had 20 sellouts, and the hockey program pumped $350,000 into the athletic department budget. Sums up Tony O'Brien, a referee in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), "Wisconsin's arena is the Montreal Forum of college hockey. Every referee wants to work there. Every coach wants to coach there. Every team wants to play there."
Unless, of course, a team is fussy about its won-lost record. The 1981-82 Badgers may be the best hockey team Wisconsin has ever had—and they aren't even healthy yet. Only six of the 22 players have been able to play in every game. Still, at week's end the Badgers were ranked first in the nation with a 26-4-1 record and had outscored their opponents 184-81. Nine Badgers already have been drafted as future choices by NHL teams, and a 10th, freshman Pat Flatley from Toronto, is expected to go in the first round in June. Says Johnson, "It used to be if you went to college you weren't drafted in the first three rounds, but all that's changed."
One player who hasn't been drafted is Johnson's son, Pete. To maintain an air of impartiality, Johnson never refers to him as Pete or as his son but always as Pete Johnson. A senior wing who was a late bloomer, Pete isn't flashy, but he's a natural scorer. He has emerged from the shadow of older brother Mark—1979 College Player of the Year while at Wisconsin and 1980 Olympic hero who is now playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins—to become the Badgers' No. 2 scorer so far this year, with 30 goals and 19 assists. Sophomore Center John Newberry leads the team with 33 and 21.
Wisconsin didn't even have a hockey program between 1935 and 1962, partly because neither the school nor the town had an indoor rink. Johnson was coaching at Colorado College in 1966 when Wisconsin offered him the job of making its hockey program a national power. One of the principal attractions for him was the coliseum, which was completed after Johnson's first season in Madison. "Before I accepted I asked myself, 'Why isn't there hockey in Wisconsin the way there is in Minnesota?' " Johnson recalls. He decided there could be. "All I had was a desk. I finally got a phone. Then I got a chair. Then I think I got a filing cabinet. I had to sell the program not only to the players but also to the athletic department."
Johnson now has a newly refurbished office in Camp Randall Stadium that would put those of most NHL coaches to shame; the furniture, the decorations, the television—the whole deal—was either donated by local businessmen or paid for by contributions from the Blue Line Club, which numbers some 800 members and last year raised nearly $30,000 for the Badger hockey program. The school makes a hockey highlight film each year. You think the Chicago Black Hawks ever make a highlight film? The team weight room is the size of a small dairy farm. The players get their names stamped on their sticks by the manufacturer. Every home game gets statewide TV coverage. Johnson is the only college hockey coach in the country to have his own television show.