Thursday

Mark Johnson

Imagine this. It is the 1970s. The Iron Curtain is still very much up. Cold War elations between communist Europe and the west are icy at best, especially between the Soviets and the USA. The world's two super power compete for supremacy in every way they can - economics, politics, technology, societal issues, you name it. Sports, too. Especially sports.

Except for hockey maybe. The Soviets may very well have passed Canada as hockey's super power. American hockey needs binoculars if they have any hope in seeing themselves catching up to those two countries.

But as the decade comes to a close, one family will do their absolute best to bring the Americans to that level. Ultimately they would get there, at least on one day. But that day happened to be during the 1980 Winter Olympics!

More on the Miracle on Ice later. Back to the early 1970s, Bob Johnson is quickly rising to become one of the most successful hockey coaches in American history. His son Mark will become perhaps the greatest college hockey player ever, as well as Olympic hero and NHL star. But in the meantime all he wants for Christmas is a Soviet Union hockey jersey, preferably Vladimir Petrov.

Yes, that's correct. The son of an hockey legend and very much an American hockey legend in his own right grew up idolizing the Soviets. I don't think dad could have been any happier.

Mark Johnson emulated the Soviet game perfectly, playing a beautiful brand of hockey based on skill, skating and passing. His teammates called him "Magic," because the things he could do with the puck and the plays he could create with his wondrous passing ability made some think he was hockey's equivalent to NBA star Magic Johnson.

"He was our Gretzky," said Olympic teammate Jim Craig.

He was good. He led Madison Memorial to the 1976 Wisconsin High School championship in 1976, but he almost missed much of his final year of secondary schooling because some felt the 17 year old was ready for the 1976 Olympic team. After scoring 11 points in 11 exhibition games, he ultimately was not considered for the team as his father, who was coaching Team USA at the Innsbruck Games, feared charges of nepotism.

Father and son would unite the next season at the University of Wisconsin where both will forever be legends. In Mark's freshman year he led the Badgers to the NCAA championship. Mark, who scored 36 goals and 80 points in 40 games, scored 2 goals and 3 points in the title game against Michigan.

Johnson would complete three seasons at Wisconsin, completing his Bachelor of Science in kinesiology in 1994 after his hockey career ended. But in the 1979-80 season the Americans would not leave their top collegian off their Olympic team this time around, especially since the games were to be played in Lake Placid, New York. Not even the fact that Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson's fierce rival and downright bitter enemy, was coaching the team could keep Mark Johnson off this team. He was too good. Without him, Team USA had no hope of any hockey glory in 1980.

Johnson led all Team USA players in pre-Olympic scoring, with 33 goals, 48 assists and 81 points, and then led the Americans in Olympic scoring with 11 points. Though Mike Eruzione scored the famous game winning goal against the Soviets, it was Johnson who scored two keys against the mighty Russians. His first goal tied the game at 2-2 with just one second left in the first period, and his second goal tied the game at 3-3 midway through the third period, setting the stage for Eruzione's game-winner. Johnson then went on to score the game-winning goal in team's 4-2 win over Finland to give the Americans the 1980 Olympic gold medal!

Following the Olympics Johnson moved on to the NHL, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins who drafted him 66th overall back in 1977. He would go on to be Pittsburgh's rookie of the year in 1980-81, but he never could get established in the Steel City. His small size and international game put him at a disadvantage in the rough and tumble world of the NHL. He would have to adjust his game if he were to succeed in the NHL.

Adjust he did, and succeed he did. After a short 10 game stint with the Minnesota North Stars, Johnson joined the Hartford Whalers in 1982. It was with the Whalers he is best remembered as a pro, playing on a line with Sylvain Turgeon and Ray Neufeld. In his first year he exploded for 31 goals and 69 points, and then set career highs in 1983-84 with 35 goals and 87 points. That year he was even invited to the NHL All Star game, where he tied an All Star game record (since broke) with 3 assists.

Injuries played havoc with Johnson's '84-85 season, which led to his trading to St. Louis. But in 1985-86 he joined the New Jersey Devils, where he would enjoy his longest NHL stop, playing 5 more NHL seasons.

In 1990-91 Johnson packed his bags and extended his career going to Europe, where he would play three seasons in Austria and Italy. He left the NHL after 11 seasons with 669 games played, 203 goals, 305 assists and 508 points.

Mark Johnson was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 1999 and the US Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004. After his career was over he return Madison, Wisconsin to become a coach, first in the high school scene and then the minor pros before settling in as a long time assistant with the Badgers. Late on, in a surprise move, the University opted to give the head coaching job, the job once held by Mark's father, to Mike Eaves. Even more surprising, Mark Johnson then campaigned to coach to the University's women's hockey team.

"On the men's side, if you're dealing with football, basketball, hockey, in the back of the kids' minds, they want to play for money one day. And that changes the parameters of a lot of things that we deal with, especially with the money that's out there now. On the women's side, their dreams are playing on the national team, in the Olympics. They're here for the right reasons. It's like when we played. Their dreams are similar to what ours were."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I watched Mark play a few games in Madcity before he was famous. He was a good skater!

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