When they call the roll of the greatest teams ever in men's college hockey, it doesn't take long for the University of Wisconsin's 1976-77 team to be mentioned.
That season, the Badgers set power-play records that will never be touched, steamrolled to a 37-7-1 record and completed the hat trick, winning the WCHA regular-season, WCHA playoff and NCAA titles.
"I think it's probably one of the best teams ever," said Bob Suter, a defenseman on that team. "It would be in the top 10, easily."
Of course, we already knew UW was a great team that year. What we didn't know was that it would continue to be great for the next 30 years.
Indeed, the post-1977 exploits of the coaches and players on that team have gone far beyond the impact they had at UW. Mostly as coaches, but also as players and scouts, the members of that team have continued to make their mark in hockey.
In fact, a strong case can be made that the men who congregated daily in the UW locker room that season have had a greater impact on hockey in the United States than any similar group of people anywhere.
Among their accomplishments since Steve Alley's overtime goal against Michigan gave UW the NCAA title:
Suter and Mark Johnson played on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal and changed hockey forever, opening the door for American and college players in the NHL. Johnson was the Olympic team's leading scorer.
Bob Johnson, who coached that UW team, later coached in the NHL, where he led Calgary to one Stanley Cup final and took Pittsburgh to the title in 1990-91, his first season there.
Badger Bob became the first coach to win both a college and NHL title and only the second American-born coach to win an NHL title (and the first since 1938).
George Gwozdecky, a senior in 1976-77, is one of college hockey's finest coaches, leading Denver to 20-win seasons in nine of his 12 years and winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2004 and '05. Earlier, Gwozdecky coached Miami (Ohio) to its first NCAA bid and won an NAIA title at UW-River Falls in 1983.
Mike Eaves and Mark Johnson, still the leading scorers in UW history, coached their alma mater to an unprecedented double this season, with Eaves' men's team winning UW's sixth NCAA title and Johnson's women's team winning its first. Eaves also coached Team USA to victory in the 2004 World Junior Championships, the first time the Americans won that tournament and only the third major international title in U.S. history.
Dave McNab, a reserve goaltender in 1976-77, has been an NHL scout and front-office executive for 28 years, spending the last 12 as the assistant general manager for Anaheim. The Mighty Ducks, an expansion team when McNab was hired, reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2003.
Even the assistant coaches on the 1976-77 team have been hugely successful. Bill Howard, who is still UW's goaltending coach, has six NCAA championship rings, more than any other person, and Grant Standbrook has five (three at UW and two at Maine).
Others have made their mark, as well. Defenseman Craig Norwich no longer coaches at Shattuck St. Mary's in Minnesota, but he is credited with making it the premier prep school program in the Midwest. Ian Perrin coached at UW-Eau Claire and Jim Scheid and Mike Dibble coached high school hockey. And Suter has been heavily involved locally, coaching players such as Mark Osiecki, Rob Andringa, Ryan Suter (his son), Jack Skille and Phil Kessel in his Madison Capitols program.
"For a team that did not have a lot of NHL players on it, a lot of guys have gone on to be involved in the sport and done well," McNab said.
Johnson and Eaves were the only players on the team who played more than two seasons in the NHL. Norwich, Alley, John Taft and Mike Meeker also reached the NHL, but they played only briefly.
That hasn't stopped the UW contingent from making its mark, however. The winning atmosphere in the UW program and the influence of Badger Bob convinced many of them to stay in hockey.
"If you're looking for a common denominator, that seems to be the one," Mark Johnson said of his father, who died in 1992. "He touched all of them in different ways."
McNab said Bob Johnson was "absolutely a lot looser than some of the coaches now all around the country" and made the game fun. But Badger Bob was also passionate and competitive, and he recruited the same type of players.
"I know a common denominator was Coach Johnson and his love for the game," Eaves said. "In some form or fashion, all of the people we talked about took a little bit of Bob with them."
Eaves certainly has. He recalls how everything came together during the 1976-77 season after Bob Johnson, Alley and Taft returned from the 1976 Olympics. UW had talent, depth and strong leadership.
Although this year's UW team couldn't match the power play that scored an unheard of 93 goals in 1976-77 (this year's NCAA leader, Colorado College, had 57), Eaves uses many of the same terms when talking about this year's championship team as he does when he talks about the one he played on.
"It was a team in the true sense," he said. "Our third and fourth line guys played unbelievable at the (NCAA) tournament. Without their contributions, we don't win. Steve got the big goal in overtime and I got the overtime goal in the (semifinal against New Hampshire), but Les Grauer, Dave Herbst, Mike Meeker, these guys all contributed. We were losing to New Hampshire and Les Grauer scores an unbelievable five-hole goal that ties it up. That was one of my first lessons that you don't win unless you've got depth and unless you have balance in your lines.
"But the thing that stands out in my mind was how talented the team was. ... We had good leadership, too. Steve Alley was just a willful guy, a lot like Adam Burish. Not the most talented guy, but his will to win and his ability to play hard and say, Get on my back and follow me,' was an important ingredient. Ultimately, when you get to overtime games and tough games, your will has to be greater than your skill, and our leader in that was Steve Alley. His will to win was second to none."
Three decades later, the 1976-77 team's success remains second to none.
"It was," Mark Johnson said, "a pretty special team."
It still is, Mark. It still is.
\ Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.