After former Penguin Mark Johnson - who is the head coach of the Wisconsin women's hockey team - walked into the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for the first time on Friday afternoon, he sat at one of the tables in the lobby with a smile on his face.
"Coming back to Pittsburgh for me is great," he said. "I was here a long time ago as a player, my dad was here as a coach, so I was anxious to see the facility. I heard a lot about it and talked with different people when they were putting the project together in the early stages, and I saw final renderings of it, and now I get a chance to come in and play in it.
"It's phenomenal. My dad would've loved it just because it just gives the opportunity for more kids to get involved playing."
Johnson, a hero of the 1980 U.S. Olympic 'Miracle on Ice,' played for Pittsburgh from 1980-82. His dad was Badger Bob Johnson, who led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in 1991.
Mark is here this weekend for the first-ever 'Battle at the Burgh' invitational tournament, where the Badgers - the defending national champions who are currently ranked No. 1 in the country - highlight a powerhouse field that also includes local power Robert Morris and two other nationally-ranked teams, Northeastern and Colgate.
The tournament will open with two games on Saturday, with No. 4 Northeastern taking on No. 16 Colgate at 4 p.m. and No. 1 Wisconsin meeting No. 12 Robert Morris at 7 p.m. The consolation and championship games will be played on Sunday at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.
Tickets are $20 per day (two games each) and may be purchased online here. All seats are general admission.
Johnson said that each year, they try to connect with teams for non-conference games, so they had been talking with Robert Morris about playing each other. One thing led to another, and the tournament came together.
"We've been doing this probably at least six or seven years now, where we try to take our product into an area where we can expose women's hockey," Johnson said.
The timing couldn't have been better for this tournament, as it builds on the momentum of the week-long training camps held by the U.S. and Canada national teams in November and will be another great showcase for women's hockey.
"The people that have seen women's hockey understand it, but the people that haven't walk away quite impressed," Johnson said. "They'll say, 'I didn't realize how fast they were. I didn't realize how good they were.' I get those types of comments and that's what you want to hear, because eventually if it comes to them or they get an opportunity to go see a game somewhere else, they'll go see it. It's a lot of fun and we've got four good teams here this weekend, so the games that go on will be very entertaining."
Johnson has been the head coach of the Wisconsin women's hockey team since taking over the program in 2002. Under his direction, Wisconsin has compiled five NCAA titles, eight WCHA playoff titles and seven WCHA regular season crowns. He is the winningest coach not only in Wisconsin history, but is the winningest coach in NCAA collegiate women's hockey history.
Johnson said that his father, who got the nickname "Badger" after 15 years of coaching the Wisconsin men's hockey team from 1966-82, would have loved to see just how much women's hockey has grown and what it has transformed into today.
"He would have been smiling," Johnson said. "He would have loved it. We could have sat here and watched all these young ladies walk in and watched the tournaments that are going on here and watched the colleges get involved.
"I know my daughters would have loved to go on the ice and work with him, and he would have loved working with them too because he was the ultimate teacher of the game. As far as teaching and wanting to get better and improving, there's no better group to work with than the women's side. That's what I've enjoyed for a long time."