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Bob Johnson's influence lives on with Tim Hunter

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

The work crews on the side of the road as the bus would roll by, whatever city, whether in the blinding glare of mid-afternoon or the dark dead of night, invariably caught his eye.

“Bob,’’ Tim Hunter is reminiscing, “always had something to say about those guys. Digging ditches. Laying cement. Whatever.

“Nothing demeaning. Quite the contrary.

“He’d be like ‘Look at those guys work. Look at the effort. They’re pros. They’re out their in the sun or the dark’ - whatever it was - ‘doing their job to the best of their ability.

“‘You’re pro hockey players. It’s up to you to do your job to the best of your ability, too.’

“Everyone had a role to play, no matter what it was, they had a place in the crew.

“Hockey’s the same. Everyone’s got a position; everyone’s got a role. If that’s clarified, if everyone understands that, there’s harmony, and the job - winning a game, getting the asphalt poured, whatever - gets done.

“As a coach, I use all that stuff now.”

Badger Bob Johnson would, doubtless, be tickled. During his tenure in charge of the Calgary Flames, the irrepressibly upbeat Badger Bob helped transform Hunter into a better hockey player, continues to influence him to this day in Hunter’s current assignment as head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors.

And now, with Team Canada’s World Junior Hockey entry for 2017, at a tournament being co-hosted by Toronto and Montreal.

Monday, Hockey Canada announced that Hunter and been selected to join head knock Dominque Ducharme of QMJHL Dummondville and fellow assistants Kris Knoblach of Regina (WHL) and Misha Donskov (London, OHL) on the coaching staff.

Canada opens its quest on Boxing Day against Russia at Air Canada Centre.

“Just going through the interview process was beneficial. The final stage was very in-depth with the policy committee. They were great to present in front of, great questions for me. They asked for a 25-minute presentation on your vision, your communication plan and your plan to run a team.

“It was a great experience.”

Badger Bob will have been gone 25 years this November 26th, well before his time, a victim of brain cancer the same year he guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to their first Stanley Cup title.

But his legacy lives on in people, in pupils, like Tim Hunter.

“My biggest influence as a coach? Oh, yeah. I didn’t play for Al MacNeil for very long and Terry Crisp was more of a prototypical North American coach.

“Bob was … different. As I guess everyone knows by now. Everything was about the game, every day. Every minute, it seemed. Even when he had (wife) Martha on the bus. I felt sorry for her because he was still always talking hockey.

“The guy lived and breathed hockey and he did it in a way that made you feel good. He refreshed you. I try to do a lot of things now that he used to. He always left you feeling good about yourself, even after maybe tearing a little bit of a strip off you.

“With me, it was always: ‘You’re a smart guy, Tim. You can figure this out. You’ve just got to be better. You’ve played some real good games and I know you’re going to play another one.’

“Bob never talked about the fighting. He just kind of let me do my own thing. But it took him a bit of time to get with the program. It was kind of like ‘Uh, Philadelphia is not the place you healthy-scratch Tim Hunter, Bob …’ Lanny and Riser are telling him: ‘No, no, Bob. You dress Tim Hunter tonight. He makes us all just a little bit bigger.’ And he’s: ‘Okay, okay. Won’t happen again.’

“But Bob, the way he kept you up, kept you positive, that made a big, big impression on me.

“There’s a lot of pressure on athletes to perform anyway and if the coach is breathing more pressure all day long, it doesn’t lend itself to good performance. That’s when they start squeezing the sawdust out of their sticks.

“He was always trying to make everybody better. Which is a coach’s job, right? That’s what gave me, a tough guy, a 16-year career, allowing me to go to Quebec and Vancouver to help the young players there. And then end my career in San Jose on my terms. Part of that was winning a Stanley Cup, sure, but a lot of that was Bob making me work to be a better player every day.

“Not many guys that played role in the league played 132 playoff games, in three Stanley Cup finals and played right to the end.”

As if playing in Canada, in this country’s two major hockey media markets wasn’t enough, last year’s edition of the Maple Leaf finished out of the WJC medals in Helsinki, thrashed 5-2 by Sweden in the quarters.

So the hometown heat is bound to be ratcheted up to the max.

Bring it on, says Hunter, who never backed down from a hockey fight in his life.

“That’s what we all want in this business: To coach the big games and be successful. The guys that don’t flinch, the guys that composed, keep an even keel, an even demeanour, but yet know how to put emotion in it the right way, the right amount to get a team willing to run through a wall for Hockey Canada, those are the guys who are successful.

“The length of time I’ve been in this game, the amount of big games I’ve been in both as a coach and a player, I think is right for the situation.”

Bob Johnson, naturally, absolutely loved international hockey. He skippered the U.S. at the ’76 Winter Olympics and seven other major international tournaments, including the Canada Cup and World Championships.

He, as much as anyone, understood the special opportunity these sorts of tournaments offered.

“There’s a lot of awfully good coaches in the Canadian Hockey League,’’ says Tim Hunter. “To represent your country and to be picked one of three among such a great group of candidates …

“I’m thrilled to be chosen.

“Extremely proud.”

Goes without saying, up there at the top of that mountain he always spoke of, Badger is, too.

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