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Historical Headlines: Johnson's Bleak Outlook

Johnson's health a devastating shock

by Dave Molinari / The Pittsburgh Press

This story was originally written by The Pittsburgh Press sports writer Dave Molinari and was published on August 31, 1991. 

Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick paused for a moment to consider the question. And to contain his emotions.

How do you explain what it feels like to learn a longtime friend and valued co-worked has a disease likely to end his career, and possibly his life?

Patrick hesitated, repeated the question, then said simply, "I'm devastated."

He needed to say no more. The tears welling in his eyes betrayed the pain Patrick felt about the predicament facing Penguins Coach Bob Johnson.

Johnson, 60, had surgery to remove a tumor from the right side of his brain early yesterday. De. Charles Burke, one of the Penguins' team physicians, said biopsy reports were incomplete, but that the tumor quite possibly is malignant.

Civic Arena Corp. Paul Martha told a press conference the "prognosis is not good," But it might be even more bleak than team officials let on.

One of Johnson's sons, Peter, told the Madison (Wis.) State Journal that a CAT scan taken Thursday night revealed two tumors, one of which was bleeding. At the news conference, team officials mentioned only the tumor on which surgery was performed.

Patrick, who is handling all media inquiries about Johnson's ailment, could not be reached for comment on the State Journal report.

Johnson was listed in serious but stable condition at Mercy Hospital, where the operation was performed. He regained consciousness yesterday and, although he did not speak, was communicating via written notes.

News of Johnson's illness hit the Civic Arena hard. Eyes around the Penguins' offices were alternately moist and glazed, and Johnson's players were shaken by word of their coach's ailment.

"I saw him about a week and a half ago," center Mario Lemieux said. "He was the same old Badger everybody knows. It's scary. Really sad."

Johnson's coaching style earned the respect and affection of the Penguins as he led them to the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship last spring. His enthusiasm and passion for the game were the perfect antidote for the sour attitudes formed during the endless winters of mediocrity that preceded his arrival.

"He's such a great person," right winger Mark Recchi said. "Players love him."

"We'd lose, 8-0, and he has good things to say about people," assistant coach Rich Paterson said.

"Bob's always such a positive guy, always upbeat to talk to," left winger Troy Loney said. "To put him in this situation is really sad."

Johnson's zeal infected those who worked with and for him; before the season ended, his trademark line - "It's a great day for hockey" - had practically become the corporate credo.

"No matter how tired you are and how down you might be, he always has that enthusiasm to keep you going," equipment manager Steve Latin said. "It showed with our team last year. I've never in my life met anyone more positive.

"No matter how tired you are, when you see him bounce around that dressing room, it just makes you get up and go a little harder. You just never feel tired when you're around Bob Johnson.

"He makes you feel like you're 15, 16 years old… if he told me to move that wall, I'd move the wall for him. I wouldn't even ask a question."

"He was a big inspiration for our team," Penguins left winger Kevin Stevens said. "He kept us together."

Burke said "it's too early to say what the future is going to hold about the possibility of Johnson returning to coaching, although no one seemed optimistic about the chances.

Tim Taylor of Yale University replaced Johnson as coach of the U.S. entry in the Canada Cup tournament, which began when Team USA played Sweden at the Civic Arena this afternoon.

Johnson's absence from that game could not be overlooked, but Team USA vowed not to let the loss of its coach spoil what could be its best Canada Cup performance in history.

"One of Bob's expressions is, "If you want to reap a harvest, you have to plow,'" Taylor said. "So we're going to keep plowing.

"I think we're subdued, but I hope it's going to give us a strength and resolve to play our best."

Johnson has long been among the leading proponents of hockey in the United States. Many of Team USA's players have formed bonds with him while playing in various international competitions.

They, like the Penguins, have a special fondness for the man who loves the game so dearly that he has built his life around it.

"I believe this is going to put us on a mission," goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said. "All of us believe in our hearts we can play for Bob. It comes down to the heart that you have for somebody.

"We know Badger would want us to go out and have it be 'a great day for hockey' and play as hard as we can," forward Ed Olczyk said. We've got to carry this thing as far as we can. We want to do it for him. It's difficult, but we've got to use it as he would want us to use it - in a positive way."

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