Bob Johnson was one of the most popular and successful hockey teachers and administrators in the amateur and pro ranks. His effervescent personality combined with a technical knowledge of the game to make him a natural leader wherever he worked.
A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Johnson played hockey in the City Park Board League, was an all-star in high school and took on his first coaching assignment at the age of 13 when he guided a local midget team. During his years playing forward at the University of North Dakota and the University of Minnesota, he spent much of his time coaching high school teams. Johnson led Minnesota to two conference championships and was the team's top scorer.
In 1956, Johnson became the head coach of the Warroad high school in rural Minnesota. After one season he moved to Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and won four city championships in six seasons. In 1963, he took the post at Colorado College and after three years he moved on to the University of Wisconsin. Johnson guided the Badgers for 15 years, captured three national titles and was named the NCAA's top coach in 1977. During this period he also coached the U.S. national team from 1973 to 1975 and the Olympic team at the Innsbruck games in 1976. He later coached the Americans at the 1981 and 1984 Canada Cups.
Badger Bob received his first chance to coach in the NHL when the Calgary Flames hired him on June 1, 1982. Under his direction the Flames were very competitive and reached the Stanley Cup final in 1986. Unfortunately for them they were a good team playing in the same division as the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers.
Following the 1986-87 season, Johnson left the NHL to take over as executive director of USA Hockey. Pittsburgh Penguins president Craig Patrick was an ardent fan of Johnson's work. When his talented squad, built around Mario Lemieux, needed to take their game to the next level, he lured Johnson back into the league. The upbeat Johnson earned the respect of the players and put an end to the factions that had divided the team and kept it from achieving its potential.
Johnson led the Penguins to their first ever Stanley Cup in 1991 and was chosen to handle Team USA at the Canada Cup that fall. Ill health forced him to step down as the American coach and, a few weeks later, the hockey world was stunned by his death from cancer. The Penguins repeated as Cup champions that year and dedicated their triumph to the memory of the man who helped so many people during his career.
"I remember the night in Calgary when we were beaten 9-0 by Hartford-it was our tenth consecutive loss. If someone had parachuted me into the coach's office after that game and I didn't know the score, I would've sworn we'd won the game. He found something positive in everything," reflected former Flames executive Cliff Fletcher.
He was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.