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An unorthodox hire at the time, Bob Johnson is now a Flames legend

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Through 17 winters, Bob Johnson had reached legendary, even deity, status around the 938-acre campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In piloting the hockey Badgers to seven NCAA tournaments, winning three national titles, and piling up 394 wins he was known to all as Badger Bob or C.J. (short for Coach Johnson).

But in Calgary, 2,058 kilometres as the crow, or an aircraft, flies from Wisconsin's state capital, a mention of Bob Johnson's name drew only blank stares.

At least initially.

When coach Al MacNeil stepped upstairs on May 31, 1982 to assume the role of Flames' director of player development and professional scouting for the Flames, the easy thing would've be to recycle an old, familiar face, a known commodity. Play it safe and hope for the best.

The easy thing would've be to recycle an old, familiar face, a known commodity. Play it safe and hope for the best.

So when Fletcher hired the quirky notebook-toting, nose-tugging, slogan-slinging NCAA coaching icon, many eyebrows were left arched.

It was a brave, bold gamble.

"Obviously,'' admits Fletcher today, "there was a little bit of nervousness. 

"I knew it could be challenging.

"But no, I never had anyone else in mind.

"I'd gone to some Wisconsin practices and I'd seen Bob Johnson run teams before. I just marvelled at the way he developed hockey players, the way he made them better.

"With the challenge of Edmonton up the road, we were going to have to make players better to even have a chance to compete. I just thought he was the logical choice.

"Badger was ready for the change because the biggest part of college coaching is recruiting and that was becoming in his mind a very dirty business which he didn't enjoy.

"He just wanted to coach. That's what he loved. That's what consumed him."

Bob Johnson took charge of the Flames for the 1982-83 campaign, bringing with him new, fresh ideas and tactical solutions, and they finished a modest 32-34-14, winning a best-of-five playoff round against Vancouver before falling in five games to Gretzky and Co.

"I'd been around a few of pro coaches in the WHA and NHL,'' says winger Jamie Hislop, aboard for Johnson's first season at the 'Dome. "Old-school guys like John Brophy, Jacques Demers.

"What was different about Badger, coming from college, was his energy, his enthusiasm and constant optimism. Every day. Any time anything is brand new, initially it's kinda like 'Whoa! Wait a minute … Is this guy for real?' But as we got into the schedule, old guys, young guys, we could all see that it was all real and that he was a heckuva coach."

Only three seasons later, the poor cousins from the south had derailed the star-laden, swaggering Edmonton Oilers machine and reached their first Stanley Cup final.

In beating the unbeatable Oilers, Bob Johnson had reached the top of that symbolic mountain he so often talked of scaling.

"I just felt,'' says Fletcher, "that he was the perfect fit for the personnel we had at the time. I thought 'Let's give him a chance. That's what he thrives on.' He sure came in with a positive attitude.

"At first, a lot of people were questioning the choice. So it had to work.

"Fortunately enough, it did."

So well, in fact, that 36 years after he was first hired to make the leap into pro hockey and 31 since exiting to take on the presidency of USA Hockey, Badger Bob remains the winningest regular-season coach in Flames' franchise history, at 193.

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