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The Verdict: Scotty Bowman reflects on Bob Johnson, '92 Final

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
Scotty Bowman equates Bob Johnson's coaching style to Joel Quenneville's.

When the Blackhawks lost the 1992 Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the opposing coach was none other than Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Famer who currently serves as senior advisor for hockey operations in Chicago.

The victory was bittersweet for Bowman, who had been director of player development and recruitment in Pittsburgh when he took over for Bob Johnson on an emergency basis. Johnson, preparing to coach the United States team in the 1991 Canada Cup, suffered an aneurysm the previous August and was subsequently diagnosed with brain cancer.


Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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“A very tragic situation for Bob, who was a terrific guy and a wonderful coach,” recalled Bowman.

Johnson had played at the University of Minnesota under John Mariucci, who starred for the Blackhawks during the 1940s. Johnson later was a high school history teacher, using a hockey stick as a pointer toward the chalkboard. In 1966, he became head hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin, where he won three NCAA championships. In 1982, “Badger Bob” made the unheard of jump from college to the NHL as coach of the Calgary Flames.

In 1990, he was appointed head coach in Pittsburgh, where he led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 1991. Their foe was the upstart Minnesota North Stars, who had shocked the Blackhawks, winners of the regular season Presidents’ Trophy, in the opening playoff series 4 games to 2.  Another Chicago theme was in play here: By hoisting the Stanley Cup, Johnson became only the second American-born coach to do so. The first was Bill Stewart, who coached the Blackhawks to the Cup in 1938.

“Bob had a fabulous career,” Bowman continued. “But he got very sick a month or so before we were going to start training camp. I replaced him as interim coach, and we were all hoping he would recover and return. He watched the games from the hospital, and we tried to keep him in the loop, calling him all the time to listen to what he had to say. Obviously, our minds weren’t completely on hockey, and we struggled for a couple months. Sadly, Bob passed away in November.”

At the behest of General Manager Craig Patrick, Bowman stayed on. The Penguins and Blackhawks traveled a similar path to the finals. As he noted, Pittsburgh labored through much of the winter, in part because superman Mario Lemieux missed 16 games. But Patrick went to the trade market and secured, among others, Rick Tocchet, a power forward from the Philadelphia Flyers. It was widely rumored that Tocchet was also on the wish list of Coach Mike Keenan, whose Blackhawks took second place in the Norris Division with 87 points, exactly the same number Pittsburgh accumulated to finish third in the Patrick Division.

“Mario, to show you how great he was, still won the scoring title with 131 points,” Bowman noted. “Then he missed six games in the playoffs after being slashed and breaking his hand in our second series against the Rangers. But he still wound up with 16 goals and 34 points in the postseason, after 44 points in the playoffs the previous year, when we won the Cup.”

The Penguins, on the cusp of elimination their first series, rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Washington Capitals in seven. Then they upset the Rangers and swept the Boston Bruins to enter the finals with a seven-game winning streak. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, were on fire. After losing two of their first three contests to St. Louis in the first round, they won the next three, then swept the Detroit Red Wings and Edmonton Oilers to forge a playoff winning streak of 11 — still a National Hockey League record — as they prepared to engage the defending champions.

“I don’t know if you’ll ever see that again,” said Bowman. “Chicago went to the finals with 11 wins in a row, and we went in with seven. We knew we had our hands full, and the Blackhawks took a 3-0 lead in the opening 14 minutes of the first game on our home ice. We came back to beat them 5-4 and eventually swept them, but three of our four wins were by one goal. You won’t see that very often, either. Usually in a sweep, it’s more one-sided.”

In Game 4 at the Stadium on June 1, captain Dirk Graham registered a hat trick for the Blackhawks inside 17 minutes. But the Penguins emerged with a 3-3 tie after the first period, by which time Ed Belfour had been replaced in Chicago’s net by Dominik Hasek, who had not played for almost six weeks.

“Jaromir Jagr, who went on to be a great player, was just a kid with us then,” Bowman went on. “We didn’t know too much about Hasek, but Jagr did. They were both from Czechoslovakia. I remember Jagr screaming on the bench to our guys that we better get Hasek now because we don’t want him playing any more games and getting confident. Jagr said he was that good, and he was right. Hasek stopped I don’t know how many breakaways, including a couple by Mario.”

The Penguins prevailed, 6-5, and when they returned home for a gala celebration at Three Rivers Stadium, Bowman took the microphone and told fans, “The coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins will always be Bob Johnson.” The Penguins, who wore commemorative patches on their uniforms after his death, made sure Johnson’s name was engraved on the Stanley Cup for a second consecutive spring.

“A very positive guy,” concluded Bowman, 20 years later. “Bob would always say, ‘It’s a Great Day for Hockey’.” The players played hard for him, he was very shrewd, and although firm, he was non-confrontational. No controversy.

“I would compare Joel Quenneville to him. If there’s a problem with the Blackhawks now, it stays private. It gets settled within and never goes public.”

Bob Johnson was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.

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