Steve Alley has been trying to track down video of a crowning achievement that’s approaching its 40th anniversary.
Given how well he’s able to describe his national championship-winning goal for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team, there might not be any more on the screen than he already has seared into his memory bank.
The small details in Alley’s top-of-the-head recollection of the play that gave the Badgers the 1977 championship line up perfectly with footage archived online.
The collision with a Michigan defenseman off the faceoff in the Wolverines’ zone on the first shift of overtime. The puck dangling in front of Badgers center Mike Eaves at the side of the net before he was tied up by defenseman Rob Palmer.
The backhand on Alley’s stick connecting with the puck, still sliding away from the goal after Tom Ulseth’s stuff attempt was foiled. The disc going into the open side of the Michigan net.
“That’s such a great scene, the way that all happened,” Alley said last week, recalling the atmosphere on March 26, 1977, in front of a divided crowd in Detroit. “I can remember literally every step, every stride in that 23-second segment.”
That was the moment that put the 1977 Badgers among college hockey’s greatest championship teams, one that will be celebrated Saturday when UW wraps up its home season at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers are having an alumni gathering for all classes, but specifically those that played on the 1976-77 team. Nineteen members of that group are expected to be back.
“I haven’t seen some of these guys since we won the championship,” said Craig Norwich, a junior defenseman who left school after the season to play in the World Hockey Association. “I’m just interested in catching up with some of the guys.”
Alley’s overtime goal may have been the lasting highlight but so many pieces came into place to make that team special, players say.
“The one thing that pops out is the power play, and how special that was and the chemistry that the group had and the number of power-play goals that team scored that year,” said Mark Johnson, a freshman center who led the 1976-77 team with 36 goals.
UW scored 93 power-play goals that season, the second-highest total in NCAA history.
“It’s a huge number,” Johnson said. “Some teams go a season without scoring that many goals now.”
The team scored on 39.1 percent of its power-play tries, a season success rate that’s third-best in NCAA history.
Norwich remembers UW using three different looks on the power play, and all were a testament to the worldliness of coach Bob Johnson.
One was an umbrella power play that puts three players in a curved shape in the top of the zone. It’s now common in hockey but in the 1970s was novel, Norwich said.
The others were variations on tactics used by teams in Czechoslovakia and West Germany that Bob Johnson had scouted.
Bob Johnson and first-year assistant coach Grant Standbrook put the right tools in the players’ hands, Norwich said.
“They had the foresight to envision the right system and the right components for the system to make that such a great power play,” he said. “We just followed the blueprint that they laid out.”
Forty years ago, opponents weren’t able to use video to break down a team’s power play like they can today, Mark Johnson said.
“It drove Herbie nuts at Minnesota,” Johnson said, referring to legendary Gophers coach Herb Brooks. “He tried every which way to try to figure out how to stop it. When you have Craig Norwich back there, he’s like a surgeon, like a doctor, just dissecting it.”
Norwich, Mark Johnson, Alley and Mike Eaves all went on to play more than 100 career NHL games after leaving the Badgers at a time when college hockey didn’t provide as many links to the top levels of the pros as it does now.
Eaves and Johnson, the top two point-scorers in program history, have been head coaches at their alma mater. Eaves was on the men’s side from 2002 to 2016. Johnson has, since 2002, led the top-ranked women’s team that hosts Robert Morris in the NCAA quarterfinals Saturday afternoon.
Defenseman John Taft, who interrupted his UW career to play for Bob Johnson in the 1976 Olympics along with Alley, and Mike Meeker also had brief NHL careers.
All-American goaltender Julian Baretta, who had to make big saves just to get the Badgers to overtime in the championship game after Michigan rallied from a 5-2 third-period deficit, and others had minor pro careers.
It was a team of characters, Mark Johnson said, but characters who were pretty good hockey players.
“If you have good chemistry, you have good leadership, you have a bunch of good players,” he said, “you have a chance to have a special season.”
That, it was. The Badgers scored 264 goals, the fifth-most in NCAA history and an average of 5.87 per game.
The 37 victories is tied for fourth all-time nationally.
Was it special enough to be considered men’s college hockey’s best championship team? The 29-0 Cornell squad in 1970, North Dakota’s 40-8 group in 1987 and Maine’s 40-1-2 team in 1993 would be among those that could offer disagreements.
Alley has his own opinion — and his own memories created in Detroit’s long-gone Olympia Stadium — on why the 1977 Badgers have bragging rights.
“People forget about Bob Johnson and what a great coach he was,” Alley said. “It wasn’t just his offensive ingenuity and innovation — that’s what he’s sort of known for. But he was a great defensive coach. We spent probably more time on what we called defensive coverage.
“I think in the end, everything else being equal, we had the best power play, and that would be the difference-maker.”