DEAR MARK... By Mark Johnson

For the most part, I think I was a pretty normal kid when I was 18.

I was a senior at Madison Memorial High School. I drove a blue Buick Skylark that I had bought for $300. It had an eight-track stereo installed in the dashboard and my preferred tunes of choice were Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and the Eagles.

I had my own bedroom at my parents' home — Bob and Martha Johnson — on Flad Circle, but no posters on the wall.

I didn’t get an allowance, so I mowed lawns, shoveled snow and sold Cokes at Wisconsin football and men’s basketball games to pay for the things I thought I needed.

I loved playing baseball with my buddies, but my passion was hockey and it wound up giving me things that kids that age only dream of.

That’s how it was in 1975.

I was a senior at Madison Memorial High School. I drove a blue Buick Skylark that I had bought for $300. It had an eight-track stereo installed in the dashboard and my preferred tunes of choice were Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and the Eagles.

Little did I know that my life would soon become a wonderful, gigantic whirlwind and that I would be carried to all sorts of unforgettable moments and places.

I’ve been a guest on Air Force One and had my story told in books and movies.

I’ve married my high school sweetheart, raised a family of five while moving across three countries and become a grandfather along the way.

I’ve coached at the pro, college and high school level — men and women; boys and girls — and loved every second.

I’ve finished seven Ironman triathlons even though I have a hockey butt and I’m not at all fond of swimming or running.

I’ve had only two full-time occupations as an adult — playing hockey and coaching it — which means being traded, rejected, injured, discarded, criticized and cursed by strangers has been a way of life.

I was asked recently what would I tell my 18-year-old self if I had the chance.

That’s an interesting project.

Knowing what I know now at age 61, of course there are some things I’d like to go back and do over again. One immediately comes to mind.

I’d tell my teenage self to call his dad and insist that he find a way to get to Lake Placid, New York, on Feb. 22, 1980.

My father was coaching the Badgers in the opener of their Western Collegiate Hockey Association series at Colorado College that Friday night. He was 1,900 miles away when he should have been sitting in the Olympic Center in upstate New York watching me and my U.S. teammates shock the world by upsetting the Soviet Union, 4-3. He felt an obligation to his team, but as we all know now, something amazing was going to happen.

“You need to be there,” I would tell him, 1,000 times if necessary. “Of anybody in the whole country, you would love it.”

I’d tell my teenage self to call his dad and insist that he find a way to get to Lake Placid, New York, on Feb. 22, 1980.

My dad was fascinated with the Russians — their tactics, strategies and personnel — to the point that he filled notebooks with drills he’d seen their legendary coach, Anatoly Tarasov, run going back to the 1960s. I still have those notebooks.

When my father was coaching at Wisconsin from 1966 to ’82, he scheduled exhibition games with touring Soviet teams — Moscow Spartak, Russia Dynamo, Soviet Traktor, Torpedo Gorky — and organized Sunday afternoon scrimmages with his Wisconsin players where one team got to wear the jerseys of Soviet legends like Valeri Kharlamov or Vladimir Petrov. I remember because I got to play in those games as a kid.

When my dad was the U.S. Olympic coach in 1976, Kharlamov and Petrov skated for the Soviets and won the gold medal thanks in part to a 6-2 victory over the Americans in Innsbruck, Austria. When we faced the Russians that night in Lake Placid, Kharlamov and Petrov were back for more.

In fact, when I was chosen to be one of the Americans drug-tested after the game, I found myself sitting quietly in the same holding room as Kharlamov, who was picked from the Russian side. We didn’t have much to say.

So, having my father on hand to see us play the Soviets wasn’t just about the famous Miracle on Ice storyline or his son scoring two goals. It was about one man’s unbridled passion and respect for the international game.

My dad got to Lake Placid two days later, just in time to see us beat Finland, 4-2, in the gold-medal game, but, man, he would have loved to see the Russians up close in an atmosphere like that. I would have loved to share it with him.

Forty-some years later I get to share something just as neat with my father. When my No. 10 jersey is retired by the Badgers on Feb. 9, it will hang in the rafters over Bob Johnson Rink at the Kohl Center. It’s pretty moving to think about it like that. I spoke at his funeral in 1991 and that was hard. I’m sure as that jersey is going up a lot of things are going to come into play. It’s going to be pretty emotional.

Being the first in Wisconsin hockey history to have my jersey retired will be pretty powerful, too. All those memories of growing up and being around the program. Playing for the university, that was the ultimate dream. As a kid I didn’t think about playing in the NHL or the Olympics. Dean Talafous and Murray Heatley were my idols. My only thought was that maybe I can play for the Badgers someday. In fact, I wore No. 17 in high school because that was Talafous’ number, but I switched to No. 10 at Wisconsin because Mike Eaves had No. 17.

All those memories of growing up and being around the program. Playing for the university, that was the ultimate dream.

Hindsight being 20/20, there are lots of moments in my life that I’d like to go back and change if I could. Heaven knows I’ve made my share of mistakes.

But what fun is life without some mystery? So instead of directing my teenage self to make all sorts of drastic changes, I’ll just give him a heads up on a few things.

Let’s start with Dad.

At 18, I didn’t realize how good he was at the job he held. To put together teams and work with players and recruit, I didn’t realize all that went into his job.

I was lucky because I got to hang around a lot, so I saw a lot of things first-hand. The fun part of it was that every day you saw somebody really enjoy what they were doing, whether that was coaching his team at the Coliseum or the hockey schools here in Madison or the hockey schools out in Aspen, Colorado.

He just loved it and it’s not easy to do. You go from coaching Mario Lemieux to a snot-nosed little kid with their shin pads on the wrong way. You got the same delivery and the same response and the same passion for helping that youngster out as you did a Hall of Famer.

I’d tell my teenage self to be thankful that he’s in a stable family and his father is passionate about what he does.

One of the most enduring examples of my father’s optimism rubbing off on people is that one year after he left Wisconsin, the Badgers won the national title; one year after he left Calgary, the Flames won the Stanley Cup; one year after he stepped away from coaching Pittsburgh due to illness, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

I’ll never forget flying from Europe to Pittsburgh to see my father after I’d gotten word that he was in the hospital in serious condition. I got there not knowing if he was alive or not — prepared for the worst — so imagine my shock when I walked into his room and found him, legal pad in hand, going over a Canada Cup practice plan with Chris Chelios, Pat LaFontaine and Brett Hull. Dad was partially paralyzed and would soon learn he had inoperable brain cancer, but it was a great day for hockey as far as he was concerned.

I had the privilege of playing three seasons for my father at Wisconsin and in three Canada Cups in which he coached Team USA, but I also remember the time he cut me.

I was 18, starting my senior year of high school. That summer my dad began coaching the U.S. Olympic team out of our garage. Seriously. All sorts of equipment — jerseys, skates, pads — was stored at our home. I remember going up to Bloomington, Minnesota, where they had a couple different tryouts that I was a part of. My dad allowed me to do it from the standpoint that it would be great exposure and a great experience, not thinking anything would come out of it.

Well, the day the team was supposed to leave for a three-week trip to Europe, one of the players backed out. I’m sitting at high school when I’m called to the principal’s office. I thought I was in trouble. The next thing I know I’m on a plane going to Europe with the national team.

I heard later on that some of the players thought I should have made the team, but my father saw things differently. After we got back, I played a couple more games before he cut me over dinner on a Sunday night.

Everyone in the family went to the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck that year except for me. I didn’t want to miss any high school games. You’re a senior and you want to do well.

I look back and think, “Well, that was pretty stupid.” How many times are you going to get a chance to go to the Olympics and watch your dad?

At that time playing for Memorial and winning a WIAA state title — which we did — was more important to me. I didn’t know that years later I’d play in the Olympics or that I’d be lighting the cauldron at the Olympics with the rest of my Miracle teammates in 2002 or that I’d coach in the Olympics with the U.S. women’s team in 2010.

I’d tell my 18-year-old self that he should join the family in Austria.

I’d also tell him that getting cut from the national team was good for a lot of reasons. It planted a seed for the next time that opportunity came around four years later. Being with them for a month also helped me realize the possibility of becoming a decent player at Wisconsin.

But that didn’t mean my confidence was always so high. Going into my freshman year with the Badgers in 1976, I remember looking at the roster and trying to see where I fit it. I’m thinking, “Will I make the team?”

Turns out we had one of the best lineups in college hockey history. We had five 20-goal scorers. Our leading point-getter was a defenseman who had 83 points, which was unheard of. We averaged almost six goals a game, went 37-7-1 and won the WCHA titles as well as the NCAA championship.

Looking back now, I was nervous and concerned that I was going to get exposed. As an 18-year-old kid, are you going to be good enough? Are you going to be worthy of being on the team? Are there are other players on the team who, in the back of their minds, are going to be thinking that the only reason you’re around is because of your dad?

I learned pretty quickly that you have to trust your coach. He may be your dad, but he’s pretty good at what he does. You have to trust him and what he’s doing.

I remember the first time we played at Minnesota that season. I was about as nervous as I could be. I walked up the steps for warmups at old Mariucci Arena and got hit with all sorts of verbal abuse.

Scoring two goals, one in overtime, made me feel a lot better. So did being named National Freshman of the Year and helping the Badgers win their second NCAA title under my father.

But I still didn’t have a sense of how well I could play. I probably fought that more than anything my whole playing career; just that fear of someone coming along and taking your job.

I was never a big guy, 150 pounds or so, and the game was so much different then, so my confidence level at times was not extremely high. I think as I went through college, I figured out I could score goals. I never thought about the NHL because of my size and not a lot of Americans — or college guys — were there. But eventually I realized that if I was going to get to the pros and be successful it would be by putting points on the board, scoring and being on the power play.

What would I tell my 18-year-old self about Herb Brooks, who coached Team USA to the gold medal in Lake Placid?

I would start by saying that, deep down, he’s a pretty good guy. He wants what’s best for the team and isn’t afraid to shake things up to make it stronger.

I was leery of Herb at first. He was the coach at Minnesota and he and my father didn’t get along. I don’t think it was a feud as much as the Twin Cities media portrayed it — I think there was mutual respect between them — but there’s no doubt that Herb didn’t like my dad, a Minnesota graduate, coming up and getting Minnesota recruits and beating the Gophers.

Herb treated me fairly, though. There was a moment in the Olympic exhibition tour where he called me into his hotel room one night and expressed to me that — I don’t know how he worded it exactly — I was an important part to the group and how I played the team would play. He put everything at ease for me about making the team and what my role would be.

I remember walking out of there feeling like someone took a piano off my back. I thought, “Now I can just go play.” It gave me an opportunity to grow at a different level. I learned an important lesson from Herb that’s helped me in my coaching career. There are points where you have to help your players play free and make sure they’re at ease.

What would I tell my teenage self about the Miracle?

I’d start with this: Appreciate it and be thankful that you’re one of 20 guys who walked in those shoes.

I remember there was just this incredible buzz after we won. The town felt like it was going to explode. Most of us went to join our families at the nearby Holiday Inn. The game was on tape-delay, so we’re all standing around watching it. All the players had the same reaction. Is this real? Are we dreaming? Are we going to wake up and find out that we got beat 7-1?

You can’t plan for that moment. You can fantasize, but no one even fantasized about beating the Russians because they were that good. They’d beaten the NHL all-star team 6-0. They’d also whipped us 10-3 in an exhibition game less than two weeks before the Olympics.

I remember us coming back the next day for practice feeling pretty good about ourselves only to find Herb in the worst mood. I don’t think any of us could figure out why because we were in the moment and he was thinking about what could happen the next day. None of us had grasped that yet. We were loving life.

You can’t plan for that moment. You can fantasize, but no one even fantasized about beating the Russians because they were that good.

We started to realize after first period of the gold-medal game with Finland. We were trailing. The whole world was watching. He walked in and said, “If you lose this game, you’re going to take it to your effing graves.” He said it again and walked out.

As a coach now, I know what he was going through. He probably didn’t sleep a wink Friday night or Saturday night just because you’re trying to figure out what buttons to push.

I remember pacing at Minnesota, where we won our first of four NCAA women’s championships in 2006. You don’t sleep well the night before because you’re so close, but yet so far.

Between the second and third we still trailed Finland, but we believed. All the things that we went through over the course of the exhibition schedule, all the uncertainty and all the grinding, the confidence was such that we didn’t know how we were going to win, we just knew we were.

I’d tell my 18-year-old self to appreciate the moment — the ride on Air Force One, the visit to the White House, the whole package of books, magazine covers and movies — and how special it is. At a young age, it doesn’t happen to a lot of people.

I’d tell my younger self that playing in the NHL is a business first and that 11 seasons, six playoff appearances, five teams, four trades and one all-star game berth is more than a pit stop, it’s a good career. I learned at a young age the business side of it, but also that as one door closes for you, another one opens.

I’d tell him to take care of himself to better avoid injuries, although there isn’t much he can do to avoid that broken jaw he got when he played for New Jersey and got hit in the head by a clearing pass by his own goaltender.

I’d tell him that being recognized in public comes with a sense of duty to be genuine, humble, thoughtful, caring and consistent. You don’t know when you’re really going to impact people. I get letters, phone calls, emails where I didn’t realize I was touching somebody. That part of what we do is special.

I’d tell my teenage self that his smartest move would be marrying Leslie. She’s the glue that keeps everything together everywhere. Our shared trust and faith in God — He has a plan better than you can imagine — has helped us find open doors instead of focusing on the ones that were closed.

I would nudge my 18-year-old self to listen harder when Joel Maturi calls to ask if I’d be interested in interviewing to be the head coach at Miami (Ohio) in 1999. I was an assistant at Wisconsin under Jeff Sauer and called Joel from a truck stop — I was on a recruiting trip — to tell him I decided to stay in Madison. I look back and think I should have gone to Miami to get the experience and work for Joel, who’s a wonderful guy.

I would also tell my 18-year-old self that when his playing career is over to give more consideration to coaching in the NHL. I don’t think about it hard anymore, but there was a time when it seemed like a worthy adventure.

Not long after I began my first year coaching the Wisconsin women’s team in 2002, I got a call from Tony Granato, who wanted me to be an assistant coach on his NHL staff in Colorado. It was really enticing because I have a lot of respect for Tony and that organization and my family has always loved our time in Colorado.

I told Tony that the timing wasn’t right, I’d made this commitment to the school, the players and the community. The program needed stability and I felt it was important for me to provide that. I look back on that decision and say that was the right choice.

I’ve been fortunate. It’s been good.

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