Men's hockey

A magical night for Johnson as number rises to the rafters

Wisconsin retired the No. 10 jersey of Badger legend Mark Johnson on Saturday night, the first retired jersey in program history.

Image By: Téalin Robinson

 Nearly everyone knows what Mark Johnson did on Feb. 22, 1980.

With a pair of goals in an Olympic hockey game against the Soviet Union, Johnson took center stage in one of the most famous sporting events in history. Suddenly, the quiet and unassuming kid from Madison who just liked to play hockey was, along with his teammates, the biggest star in the country.

Those two goals in the ‘Miracle On Ice’ still rate as Johnson’s best-known accomplishment.

Even 39 years later, it would’ve been understandable if Johnson’s retirement ceremony was focused on that moment, where he went from being just another hockey player — albeit an exceptionally good one — to an international celebrity.

Instead, Saturday’s 20-plus minute ceremony and the weekend’s extended festivities put something else on display: The sheer number of lives he’s touched throughout his more than 50 years in hockey.

From his playing career with Madison Memorial High School, Wisconsin and 12 years in the NHL to his coaching career — first for six years as an assistant with Wisconsin’s men’s team, and now 17 years and counting as the record-setting coach of the Badgers women’s program, Johnson has used the sport to connect with an innumerable number of teammates, fans, coaches and players.

“No one from any college or university has accomplished more in any sport at any level as a player and coach, while doing so with dignity and humility,” men’s head coach Tony Granato said of Johnson.

Johnson’s impact was on display over the weekend in the sheer number of video tributes; during multiple during the ceremony, as well as between periods during the men’s game that followed, and four separate times during the women’s game the following afternoon.

The breadth of people featured in the videos served as a testament to Johnson’s reach within the sport: From broadcasters Al Michaels and Doc Emerick to Olympic teammate Mike Eruzione, five-time Olympic gold medalist speedskater Eric Heiden, former Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and women’s hockey legends Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.

“I was just turning pro, you were well into your NHL career at that time, and what I remember from a time when veteran players weren’t always nice to rookie players, is that you were one of the most kind people around,” former NHL all-star Ray Ferraro said in a video board tribute. “After you were traded to St. Louis, I always remembered that one of the kindest and nicest people I ever met was Mark Johnson.”

The ceremony’s main video tribute began with a shot of Johnson standing on the 32 by 58 foot homemade rink in his backyard, the spot on earth that most singularly captures his approach to the game. Outfitted with a set of flood lights, the son of legendary coach Bob Johnson has turned his backyard into a public resource, an incitement for more people to try the game. It’s the same mindset that lead his father to create the Bob Johnson Hockey School in 1964 and that leads Mark to continue it more than 50 years later.

The rink is a distillation of who Johnson is, a coach who even after two Olympic medals, 12 years playing professionally and four national championships is still happy to skate around during practice and clean up the pucks while his assistant coaches diagram plays and drills.

Still sometimes quiet and even shy with the media and the public, especially when the topic turns away from hockey, Johnson opens up when he steps onto the ice. So it’s no surprise that his speech ran long, long enough that the ceremony’s countdown clock had to be reset and the impending game delayed.

True to form, he barely mentioned the 1980 Olympics or the game for which he is best known, choosing instead to focus on the numerous coaches and mentors who he credited for his success, as well as the Wisconsin hockey fans who have supported his teams for more than 40 years and the players he idolized growing up as a hockey-mad kid in Madison.

It was a fitting piece of symmetry -for a man who’s served as an idol to so many American  hockey players and athletes.

The ceremony ended with Johnson’s No. 10 hanging in the rafters of the Kohl Center, never to be work again. But even with his number retired, Johnson’s impact on hockey in Madison and beyond continues unabated — with 15,359 members of a sold-out Kohl Center crowd its newest witnesses.

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