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Mark Johnson Reflects on Penguins Debut Following 1980 Olympics

by Mark Madden / 105.9 the X

When the 1980 Winter Olympics hockey tournament at Lake Placid finished, players on the gold medal-winning United States "Miracle on Ice" team began the next phase of their careers in varied ways.

Dave Christian joined Winnipeg and scored seven seconds into his first NHL shift.

Ken Morrow went to the New York Islanders and, that spring, won the first of four straight Stanley Cups.

Mike Eruzione never played competitive hockey again.

Mark Johnson headed to Pittsburgh…and immediately played in a 0-0 tie.

Johnson electrified Lake Placid by scoring five goals and six assists in seven games, including two goals in the 4-3 "miracle" win over the Soviet Union.

But there were no goals scored on March 2, 1980 when Johnson made his NHL debut at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena in front of 14,789 - not a sellout, but well above the Penguins' season average of 10,653. Rob Holland made 24 saves for the Penguins to earn his first NHL shutout. Glenn Resch (him again) had 22 stops for the Islanders.

The stands were packed more than usual. So was the press box. Johnson's debut got lots of local media attention.

"I was tense coming in here," Johnson said after. "But the players were terrific, and they eased things for me. I hope it will all cool down. I'm not comfortable with the attention. I'm a rookie. I have to work hard to make this club. This isn't comfortable."

Penguins Coach Johnny Wilson was OK with Johnson's debut: "He handled himself like he'd been around for years. He knows the game and he's a threat."

Johnson played 13 shifts and got no shots on goal against the Islanders. His linemates were Gary McAdam and Pat Hughes.

Johnson's arrival came during a period that featured several eventful happenings for the Penguins: The Penguins debuted their black-and-gold uniforms Jan. 30. They occupied first place in the Norris Division in early January.

Johnson had to wait a bit for NHL "firsts" beyond playing his initial game: His first assist came in his fifth game March 9 at Detroit. His first goal came in his tenth game March 23 at Winnipeg. (Johnson scored twice in that contest.)

Johnson finished the 1979-80 NHL season with three goals and five assists in 17 games. He found it easier to score against the Soviets than against the NHL.

"There is a lot of difference between this and international hockey," Johnson said after his NHL debut. "The players here are stronger and smarter. The rinks are smaller. If you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage quickly. You don't get many.

"The attention makes me really uncomfortable," Johnson reiterated. "I don't consider myself very special."

Nonsense, Mark. They made movies about what you did at Lake Placid.

NHL life got easier for Johnson.

He had a strong playoff series in 1980, compiling two goals and two assists as the Penguins lost to Boston, three games to two. He finished his NHL career with 203 goals and 305 assists in 669 games. Johnson's best campaign was 1983-84 when he had 35 goals and 52 assists for Hartford, making the NHL All-Star Game.

Johnson's family cemented its Pittsburgh legacy when Mark's father, "Badger" Bob Johnson, coached the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in 1991. Mark Johnson followed in his dad's coaching footsteps: He is the coach of the University of Wisconsin women's team and has won five national titles. He coached the U.S. women to the silver medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

That 0-0 tie in his first NHL game was just a detour. Anyway, tying the next Stanley Cup champs - and Olympic teammate Morrow - actually wasn't so bad.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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