ST. PAUL, Minn. — Former Wisconsin, Olympic, and NHL star Mark Johnson and longtime Colorado College and Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer were presented with one of hockey’s most prestigious awards on Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center.
Johnson and Sauer were among four recipients of the NHL’s 2011 Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Pulford and longtime USA Hockey executive Tony Rossi also were honored.
Presented to the NHL by the New York Rangers in 1966, the award honors the memory of Lester Patrick, who spent 50 years in hockey as a player, coach and general manager and was a pioneer in the sport’s development.
Johnson, a Minneapolis native who has coached the Wisconsin women’s team to four national championships, is the son of legendary college and NHL coach “Badger” Bob Johnson, who received this award in 1988 and was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I think he would be elated,” said Johnson when asked what his father’s reaction might be. “He was a great mentor. I got an opportunity to play for him but, most importantly, he was a mentor to me in regards to trying to do things the right way in giving back to the great game that we all love.
“So he would have certainly been excited to be here tonight and see what I have been able to accomplish over a long period of time. Once I found out I was going to receive the award, certainly driving up today [I've been] thinking about him quite a bit.”
Johnson said the weeks since the award was announced have given him time to reflect on what he’s been able to do as a player and a coach but, initially, it took a while to sink in.
“On a day-to-day basis you don’t think about these things, and all of a sudden you get a phone call from [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman and, it’s like, ‘What does Gary want with me now?’” said Johnson. “He acknowledges I was going to win this award and it’s like you step back and say ‘Wow,’ and then you say, ‘Oh, jeez, I guess I am getting older.’”
An accomplished player, Johnson starred for three seasons for his father at Wisconsin but is perhaps best known as the leading scorer for the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Johnson scored twice in Team USA’s historic 4-3 victory over the vaunted Soviet Union team in Lake Placid.
Johnson parlayed that experience into an 11-year NHL career in which he amassed 508 points in 669 games before following his father’s footsteps into the coaching ranks, including a stint as an assistant to Sauer.
A Fort Atkinson, Wis., native, Sauer’s connection to “Badger Bob” is strong as well. Sauer played and coached under Johnson at Colorado College and followed him to Wisconsin before eventually taking the reins of the Tigers in 1971.
When Bob Johnson left Wisconsin for the NHL in 1982, Sauer replaced him and spent 20 seasons behind the Badgers’ bench, leading them to national titles in 1983 and 1990. In a NCAA Division I head-coaching career spanning more than 30 years, Sauer’s 655 victories (655-532-57) are good for eighth on the all-time wins list.
Sauer has spent more than 40 years involved with coaching the hearing impaired, and he led the U.S. Deaf Olympic Team to a gold medal at the 2007 at the IIHF Winter Deaf Olympics.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of different teams and a lot of USA Hockey teams, and done things along the way and so forth but it was just part of the job,” said Sauer. “It wasn’t anything to get to this point in time.
“My dad always said I never had a job, and that’s true. I’ve had one of those jobs you go the office every day and it’s fun to be there.”
Sauer was recently named head coach of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and, after spending about two months on the ice with them, he said there isn’t a more committed group of players.
“The sad part about it is a number of our players are military guys that have been in combat situations,” said Sauer. “But the one thing is they’re much more disciplined players than Chris Chelios ever was or some of those guys. It’s yes sir, no sir, so it’s kind of refreshing from that standpoint.”
Both men were honored by the award, but equally as humbled.
“I was fortunate to have a lot of great mentors as a player and certainly I’ve had a lot of great people helping me become a better coach than I was 15 years ago and so it’s an opportunity to thank a lot of those people,” said Johnson. “I feel fortunate that, hopefully, I’ve touched some lives over the course of the last 10 or 15 years with the players I’ve had a chance to work with.”
“I was shocked but very, very honored,” said Sauer. “When you take a look at the list of people that have received this award, to be included in that company is pretty overwhelming.”