By: Greg Enright
Long before the late Bob Johnson became Penguins coach in 1990 and led them to the Stanley Cup in his first year behind the bench, another member of the Johnson clan brought a little championship magic to the team.
Bob’s son Mark was drafted by the Pens in the 1977 amateur draft out of the University of Wisconsin, where father Bob was coaching. However, he didn’t suit up for Pittsburgh until late in the 1979-80 season – after he’d completed more of his schooling and, oh, also won an Olympic gold medal as part of the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. national team at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. Mark led the way in the key semi-final victory over the powerful Soviet Union, scoring two goals to help the U.S. win 4-3.
The Penguins, looking to capture some of the golden touch of that miraculous team and to cash in on having one its biggest stars skating on Civic Arena ice, immediately set out to sign Johnson after the Games ended. That they did on February 29, 1980, announced at a press conference also attended by Mark’s dad, Badger Bob. The signing was bittersweet for the elder Johnson, who would not have his son’s services at Wisconsin for the upcoming year. In true Badger style, however, the coach accentuated the positive. “You’ve got to move up the ladder,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. “It’s time to see what he can do at the next level.”
Despite the buzz, Mark had his challenges adjusting to the big leagues. Nine games in, he had yet to light the lamp as the Pens visited Minnesota, where his dad watched another scoreless performance from his son. Again, Badger took a glass-is-half-full look at the situation. As the Post-Gazette reported, Bob would remind his son, “Remember, Willie Mays went 0-for-24 when he first became a major leaguer.” (The Pens organization would be infused every day with such positive thinking once the Badger came to town a decade later.)
The younger Johnson would score three goals for the Pens that year, and 20 more over a total of 136 games in Steel Town before being traded to Minnesota on March 2, 1982. Mark would enjoy a solid career with the North Stars, Hartford, St. Louis and New Jersey before calling it quits in 1990. When his dad won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins the following year, he joined the Badger in the team’s dressing room to help celebrate the family’s arrival at the top of the hockey world. The Johnsons’ story in Pittsburgh had truly come full circle.
Greg Enright is a writer, editor and diehard Pens fan since 1977. Follow him on Twitter @penguinshistory.