CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – It’s almost not fair. And almost overwhelming to imagine. If ever there were kindred souls who never got a chance to meet, it could well be “Badger” Bob Johnson and Pittsburgh Penguins center and team captain Sidney Crosby. They have so much in common. Such hockey nerds. And, it would seem, guys who will both end their careers with the Penguins (hard to imagine Crosby going anywhere).
“I’m sure we’d talk a lot of hockey,” Crosby said Monday after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “From what I heard, he loved the game, and I love the game, too. I love talking about it, exchanging ideas, things like that.”
Their conversations would have been lengthy, legendary and loaded with hockey details. If only…
Monday is the 27th anniversary of Johnson’s death. He was only 60, and amazingly only coached the Penguins one season. But what a season. He led them to their first Stanley Cup in 1990-91. He was known more as a successful college coach at Wisconsin, thus “Badger,” and for his work with USA Hockey, but had coached Calgary to the Stanley Cup final before joining the Penguins. He also was known for his demeanor, his outlook on life that was positive almost beyond belief.
By the end of the offseason after winning the Cup, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The way the dates fell that year, he died just before Thanksgiving.
A certain young reporter was at the Penguins’ annual Thanksgiving Eve home game, chronicling the emotional pregame tribute to Johnson, which included dimming the lights while everyone in the building held a battery-operated candle, the players lining the large circle at center ice, heads bowed. I called it “16,000 points of light” in a front-page story of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I still have that candle.