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Badger's Legacy Lives On

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

In 1992 the Penguins won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups after sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks. To mark the 20th anniversary of that title run, will be reliving some of the key moments from the 1991-92 season and playoffs.

Over two decades may have passed since former Penguins head coach “Badger” Bob Johnson died after a battle with brain cancer on Nov. 26, 1991.

But when a person has such a tremendous impact on the lives of everyone around him like Badger did during his time in Pittsburgh, he will always be missed.

The sadness was etched on the face of former Penguins defenseman Jiri Hrdina during the team’s annual alumni charity golf tournament last month, as he described the candlelight vigil the Penguins held before their game against New Jersey the evening after Badger’s passing two decades ago.

“It was really emotional,” Hrdina began. “Even now when I think about it…”

Hrdina had to stop and collect himself before continuing.

“It’s hard still. And it’s been 20 years. It’s tough to believe.”

While the grief lingers today, it was fresh and raw at the beginning of the 1991-92 season – just months after Badger had led the Penguins to the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup in 1990-91, his first season as head coach.

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Badger, a Minnesota native whose coaching experience spanned all levels of hockey – high school, college, NHL and the Olympics – came to Pittsburgh in June, 1990 and completely changed the culture of an organization that had missed the playoffs seven of the previous eight years and the lives of his players with a coaching style that blended tremendous enthusiasm, a positive attitude and a passion for teaching.

“He was a special man, as we all know,” then-captain and current Penguins owner/legend Mario Lemieux said. “When he came to Pittsburgh he brought a winning attitude and was always positive with the players. All the guys loved him.”

Badger knew exactly how to motivate his players without belittling, embarrassing, yelling or screaming. His energy never lessened, and his infectious optimism roped everybody in.

“Bob Johnson was the catalyst of the team,” added Peter Taglianetti. “Bob was one of those guys that never yelled, never raised his voice. It was so different from anything that we were all used to. When it all came together, he was the guy.”

“The way he carried himself and the way he made us believe in ourselves, he was always upbeat,” Kevin Stevens said.

A few months after lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup in June, 1991, Badger and many of the Penguins were busy preparing for that year’s Canada Cup when the beloved coach – who was set to coach the U.S. team – was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in August.

“We were at camp with him when he did get sick,” said Joe Mullen, a member of Team USA. “We were coming home from the Canada Cup trip and we were all meeting at a hotel in Pittsburgh when we heard the news that he got sick.”

While Badger remained hospitalized, his team had no choice but to go about business as usual. The Penguins reported to training camp, which was ran by the assistant coaches, and tried to focus on hockey despite the emptiness created by the animated Badger.

Just one day before the regular season opener on Oct. 4, then-Penguins general manager Craig Patrick named Scotty Bowman, acting as director of player personnel at the time, as interim coach. And the defending champions, dealing with the Cup hangover, holdouts of key players Stevens and Ron Francis, but most importantly, the loss of the man who’d led them to the top, had a rough start.

Time went on. The Penguins delayed the raising of their first Stanley Cup banner until Oct. 19 in hopes that Johnson could attend, but he was unable – instead watching the ceremony from his hospital bed in Colorado. October turned into November, and the Penguins were scheduled for a trip out West. They decided to make a special visit to Johnson in the hospital on their way.

“The team struggled at the beginning of the year with the unknown,” Bowman said. “We didn’t know at the time that he wasn’t going to be able to make it, but it was tough on the players because it was such a big loss for them.”

“It was good to see him again, but he wasn’t in really good shape,” Hrdina said.

Later that month, on Nov. 26, Badger succumbed to his battle with brain cancer at the age of 60. And the team was absolutely destroyed. This was a situation that was unprecedented in pro sports, and the players didn’t know how to deal with it. After all, these athletes are tough. They skate, hit, fight and block shots and get bumps, bruises, broken bones, stitches and surgeries. They can deal with that. But grief’s an opponent that can take you down no matter how tough you are.

“To lose him was devastating,” Taglianetti said. “I think it affected a lot of guys more than we let on at the beginning of the year.”

“It’s a tough situation when something like that happens – especially when you win a Stanley Cup and you’re so close,” Stevens said. “You get 20 guys and five coaches and the equipment guys and everybody’s so close. You go through that battle for two months and everybody’s a big part of it and he was the biggest. To lose him was tough.”

The day after Badger died, the team honored their beloved coach with a beautiful tribute before their game against New Jersey at Civic Arena that night.

The ceremony included a hymn, battery-powered candle lights handed out to fans and spotlighted emblems on the ice that contained part of his signature phrase, “A Great Day for Hockey.” The Penguins thrashed the Devils that night, 8-4.

“It was pretty emotional,” Mullen said. “The Penguins organization did a great job on that. It was a great tribute to a great man.”

Mourning Badger, the team continued to struggle through the New Year – resulting in Patrick making a series of trades in February to galvanize the club. Paul Coffey and Mark Recchi, who had won the Cup in ’91, were gone, while Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, Ken Wregget and Jeff Chychrun were brought in.

The Penguins started to come together after that, with a little help from Badger. And it resulted in their second straight Stanley Cup.

“It really took almost that push right at the end there, where they made those trades because we were kind of floundering, to think back to Bob Johnson and all the stuff he’s done for us,” Taglianetti said. “At that point I think we were just like hey, let’s go back to what he taught us and what he did for us, and it worked.”

“It’s always tough to repeat as champions, and Badger was in everybody’s minds,” Larry Murphy said. “It was something that I think gave this team a little extra oomph.”

Badger spent just one season as head coach of the Penguins. But an individual like him – so full of life – had an enormous influence, both personally and professionally, on the lives of everybody he met. And his legacy lives on today.

Fans and players are reminded of Badger every time they visit CONSOL Energy Center. When any of the current Penguins walk down the runway from the locker room to the ice, they see Badger’s famous quote – “It’s a great day for hockey!” emblazoned on the wall above the stick rack.

That catchphrase is also posted on banners in and around the arena for the thousands of people that come through its doors during the season. It’s a reminder of the man who brought this city its first Stanley Cup, and how he helped shape this organization for more.

“I just remember him being so upbeat,” said seven-time Stanley Cup champion Bryan Trottier. “Win, lose or draw, it was the same high energy. I think he’s just that way. There was no faking it, he was just really one of those guys that came in and believed every day was going to be a great day and we were going to make it a great day. That attitude I think just kind of carries a real heavy presence. For all of us, we loved it; we ate it up. As a veteran, my career was winding down but I felt like a young guy around him, full of enthusiasm. It is contagious, and it is unique for a man of 60 years old to be that infectious.”

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