Mark Johnson was joking.
We think he was joking, anyway.
When Johnson, the former University of Wisconsin men’s hockey player and current UW women’s coach, was asked about having his jersey raised to the Kohl Center rafters prior to the men’s game Saturday night, the 61-year-old had a tongue-in-cheek request for his friend, men’s coach Tony Granato.
“I do have one year of eligibility left,” Johnson said. “Maybe he’ll sneak me onto the power play.”
Nothing would be more fitting because nobody at UW ever did the power play better than Johnson. In fact, nobody at UW ever did hockey better than Johnson.
A national champion and two-time All-American as a player and a four-time national champion as a coach, Johnson’s No. 10 rightfully will become the first men’s hockey jersey to be retired at the school. Rightfully, because Johnson is the thread that runs through UW’s glorious hockey history.
He began as a stickboy in the 1970s when his father, “Badger” Bob Johnson, was building the UW men’s program into a national power. Hockey was king in Madison back then and Johnson was a record-setting goal scorer at Memorial High School and UW. He became an international legend as the leading scorer on the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980, followed by an 11-year NHL career that included one All-Star Game. Later, Johnson returned to UW as an assistant coach for the men’s team and, for the 16th season, as the coach of the powerhouse women’s team.
Through all the success, Johnson has represented UW with class and humility. He never got the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps and coach the men’s team, but, despite having opportunities for coaching jobs elsewhere, he never left, either.
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The tugs he felt from Madison and UW and his family — wife Leslie and five children, two of whom, Patrick and Mikayla, played at UW — were simply too strong for him to leave and we are all better off for it. A lifetime spent around UW hockey has been pretty good for Johnson, too.
“It means a lot,” he said. “As I look back at my dad’s career as a coach, as a player, the game treated him and his family growing up real well and it’s done the same thing for me. And certainly Madison has been a big part of it, whether it was playing for Wisconsin, whether it was playing for Memorial, whether it was playing for the West Side Flyers and having ‘Sub-Zero’ on your chest. We were just typical kids growing up on the West Side of Madison. After school you tried to figure out with your buddies what sport you were going to play. ... I was fortunate to have a dad who was in the business, so I got to probably do a little bit more hockey than other people did.”
Actually, Johnson lived and breathed hockey. UW hockey. Winning hockey.
He led Memorial to a 22-0 record and a WIAA state title as a senior and, the very next year, led UW to a 37-7-1 record and an NCAA title. As a prep senior, he had 65 goals and 121 points. He ended his three-year UW career with still-standing school records of 48 goals for a season and 125 (in 125 games) for a career.
“The biggest thing I had going for me,” he said, “was I got to go Friday night and Saturday night and lug sticks across the ice and put them on the bench and organize them and then when the game was over lug them back into the locker room and be around players that at that time I idolized, whether it was Murray Heatley, Gary Winchester, Dean Talafous, Timmy Dool, Norm Cherry, all the guys that really started the program here. I got to watch them play. I got to watch them practice. Those were the players that I idolized and hoped one day that I’d get to wear this jersey and play at Wisconsin, too. A lot of good things (happened) and the most important thing ... I think was just being raised in Madison — basically since I moved here in third grade — and still (being) around here. Hockey’s been good. It’s been good to my family. It’s been good to my kids. I just very much appreciate the opportunities I’ve had.”
That includes the chance to grow the women’s program, which has a 483-87-41 record under Johnson. Perhaps the lowest spot was being passed over for the men’s coaching job in 2002, but, even though other jobs beckoned, Johnson overcame his disappointment, stuck around and found an open door just down the hall from the one that had been closed.
“As I have done in the past, I grabbed my dog, grabbed my wife and went on a long walk to try to figure out what the next step might be and try to make a decision,” he said. “Usually, our decisions were based on family. I was involved in pro hockey for 11 years, so I moved around. After being traded a number of times, you learn the business side of it. So when I started my family, I wanted stability like I had growing up. My dad didn’t leave (Madison) until all the kids were out of the house and he ended up going up to Calgary for five years and challenged himself to become a professional coach and ended up being pretty good at that, too.
“I sort of took the same steps. When decisions were in front of me, it usually was going to be a family-oriented decision, what’s best for my family. I think the decisions I’ve made have been pretty good. There’s a couple (opportunities) you look back on that you maybe would have twisted or changed a little bit. But then it would have changed my life and I look at the last 15 or 16 years of being the women’s coach. I wouldn’t want to change any of that because a lot of good things have come out of it, not only for myself but for my family, my daughters and some of the players I’ve been able to touch over that period of time.”
That goes for a lot of people in Madison as well.