A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Mark Johnsonwas born to be a Badger. Under the guidance of his famous father, he enjoyed three outstanding years at the University of Wisconsin. He racked up 256 points over those years and was twice selected to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Star Team after leading the conference in goals. His relative lack of size caused many teams to avoid drafting him, but the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him 66th overall at the 1977 Amateur Draft with the hope that he would mature in college and gain valuable international experience wearing the colors of the United States.
He played well for the U.S. at the 1978 and 1979 World Championships before committing to the national team as it prepared for the Lake Placid Olympics. Then Johnson proved to be one of the top players during Team USA's Miracle on Ice gold medal win in 1980. He scored 11 points in seven matches and was a respected figure in the dressing room. His two biggest goals came in the 4-3 upset over the USSR that paved the way to the gold medal.
After the Games, Johnson joined the Penguins for the last 17 regular-season games and first round of the playoffs. His acquisition brought the team some badly needed headlines in a city where the sports pages were dominated by the Steelers in football and the Pirates in baseball. He played solidly and proved he could stand the pace of the NHL game. As a rookie in 1980-81, he scored 33 points on a weak Pittsburgh squad and then represented the U.S. at the World Championship in the spring and the Canada Cup in the fall. Halfway through the 1981-82 season, he was traded to Minnesota. Following the North Stars' early exit from the playoffs at the hands of Chicago, Johnson again represented his country at the World Championship.
His career took a turn for the better when he was sent to Hartford in a deal consummated at the NHL Entry Draft. The Whalers utilized his speed and offensive savvy in a way that allowed him to play his best hockey as a professional. He was often teamed with Sylvain Turgeon and Ray Neufeld and produced consecutive 30-goal seasons in 1982-83 and 1983-84. In 1984, after a 35 goal season, he was named the Whalers' most valuable player. As William Houston noted, "It took him a while to learn the little tricks needed to make a small man effective in the rough NHL when to drive for the net, when to be aggressive and when to back off to save energy."
Johnson enjoyed his best Canada Cup performance in 1984 with five points in six matches. He was also enjoying a fine year in 1984-85 when the Whalers sent him to St. Louis in a package deal to acquire netminder Mike Liut. Part of Johnson's trouble in Connecticut stemmed from some constructive criticism he voiced toward coach Jack Evans. The Blues in turn sent him to New Jersey a few months later, on the eve of the 1985-86 season.
Following a solid effort at the 1987 World Championship, he was signed by the HC Milano club of the Italian first division. He proved to be one of the top players in Europe in 1990-91 with 77 points in 36 games. Early the next year he was acquired by the Zell-am-Zee club in Austria. Johnson starred with 72 points in 33 games to end his pro career on a high note. A popular player wherever he went, Johnson totaled 508 NHL points. He was often deployed on both the power-play and the penalty-killing units and was always highly regarded for his on ice intelligence. And his performance at Lake Placid in 1980 made him one of the heroes of U.S. hockey to a whole generation of fans.