After Mark Johnson led the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey Team in scoring en route to the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y – scoring two goals in Team USA’s upset of the USSR – he joined the Penguins for their remaining regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs.
At that time in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were an afterthought to the Steelers and the Pirates – who both won their championships in 1979.
“We were sort of third in the pecking order,” Johnson said, who was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1977. “The Pirates and the Steelers were quite successful, with (Terry) Bradshaw and those groups of players that were winning the Super Bowl, and you had the Pirates and what they were doing. Then you had the Penguins, who were around but weren’t having the success that the other two groups were having.”
That has completely changed in the years since Johnson was here. The franchise has since won three Stanley Cup championships – with Mark’s dad “Badger” Bob Johnson leading the team to the first in club history back in 1991 – led by superstars like Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby, and the ensuing growth of youth hockey in Western Pennsylvania has been absolutely incredible.
The team moved to a gorgeous arena just three years ago, and the facility has since been awarded a number of high-profile events – including the 2012 NHL Draft, the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four and the Three Rivers Classic college hockey tournament. Now, the city gets to host the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game this Thursday, with Johnson and fellow Penguins alum and three-time Stanley Cup champion Joe Mullen returning to serve as the head coaches.
“You get in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and Mario, Craig Patrick, my dad and Scotty Bowman put together a team that won a Stanley Cup, and all of a sudden you created excitement,” said Johnson, who is currently the head coach of the women’s hockey team at his alma mater Wisconsin. “They won it the following year. Then Sidney comes in and the torch is passed. Hockey is an exciting sport, not only in the city of Pittsburgh but the surrounding areas. Now you have Penn State not too far away; they built a new facility adding women’s and men’s hockey. So the growth continues, and it’s fun to see. It’s tough to get tickets for a Penguins game; they’re an exciting team to watch and a proud team for the city to have.”
Mullen also can’t believe the growth that’s taken place since he was here, saying “when I got there in 1990, there was probably only about three rinks with single pads (ice sheets). And you’ve just seen the growth of hockey really explode with the Stanley Cup teams that we had in those couple of years and rinks pop up all over the place. Now you’re getting double pads and triple pads and it’s just tremendous how it’s really evolved for the kids in Pittsburgh.”
Pittsburgh is special to Johnson, as they gave him an opportunity to start his pro career by drafting him three years before his legendary performance for Team USA's Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics. And also because his father’s legacy lives on, in the Cup championship and his catchphrase “it’s a great day for hockey.”
“I had a chance to play there for a couple years and then my dad had a chance to coach there and obviously do something very special,” Johnson said. “So any time I get a chance to go back or revisit, it’s enjoyable.”
Johnson is also excited for the reason behind his return to Pittsburgh: the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
The contest will feature 40 of the top American-born players eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. It gives potential draft picks the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of NHL talent evaluators like general managers and scouts against the best U.S.-born players.
To Johnson, this national showcase is a perfect example of how much USA Hockey has evolved since he was a kid coming up through the amateur ranks in Wisconsin back in the ‘70s. An opportunity like this certainly didn’t exist back then.
“It’s like night and day,” he said. “I mean, the growth and the areas that now have hockey – I see it certainly on the women’s side where I’ve got players from California, Florida, Texas. It was so regionalized when we were growing up and it certainly has expanded and you see more young players get an opportunity to play. Certainly we’re going to see the cream of the crop in Pittsburgh.
“And not only has the number increased, but (so has) the quality of our players and the development. What USA Hockey has done to help a lot of these young players grow as individuals and educate them (is impressive), and obviously our coaching body is a lot stronger than it used to be. So the whole thing has been amazing to watch and you’re excited for the younger players because they’re certainly getting an opportunity that wasn’t there several years ago.”