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Starkey: Herbie, Badger Bob would have loved this

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 11:30 p.m.
AP file
U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks speaks to players during practice Feb. 8, 1980.

The prestigious Hobey Baker Award, given to the United States' top college hockey player, will be presented at 6 p.m. Friday at Consol Energy Center.

Pretty cool. But imagine what the ceremony might have been like …

“Here to present this year's Hobey Baker Award, a pair of American hockey legends, each with significant ties to the city of Pittsburgh — Mr. Bob Johnson and Mr. Herb Brooks.”

What a sight that would have been.

“Herbie” and “Badger Bob” — along with Baker himself — rank among the handful of most influential people in the history of American hockey.

Badger Bob would have turned 82 last month. Herbie would have turned 76 in August. Oh, how they would have loved college hockey being celebrated in such style at the Frozen Four.

And in Pittsburgh on top of that?

“My dad would have been lovin' life to see how far college hockey has come,” said Mark Johnson, ex-Penguin and son of Badger Bob. “He would have been smiling ear to ear.”

“My dad would be in his glory,” said Dan Brooks, son of Herbie. “The last college team he coached was (Frozen Four participant) St. Cloud State — his baby, so to speak — and he just loved Pittsburgh.”

No doubt, the two old men would have been chatting up everyone in sight. The challenge would have been getting them to speak to each other. They were, after all, college hockey's version of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler in the 1970s.

Both had played college hockey at Minnesota under legendary coach John Mariucci. Herbie went on to coach at Minnesota, with Badger Bob just 300 miles down Interstate 94 at Wisconsin.

Herbie won national titles in 1974, '76 and '79. Badger Bob won them in '73, '77 and '81.

Badger Bob coached the 1976 U.S. Olympic team and later was director of USA Hockey. Herbie, of course, coached the iconic 1980 team — the team that spawned a generation of hockey players who would have chosen some other sport if not for the Miracle on Ice.

Personality-wise, the two could not have been more dissimilar. In the book “One Goal,” John Powers and Art Kaminsky artfully described the differences:

“Brooks was tight-lipped, blunt and often critical. Johnson was hyperactive, garrulous and unabashedly boosterish. Brooks was mysterious and enigmatic. With Johnson, no guessing was necessary; if you didn't know what he was doing and why, he would tell you — a dozen times.”

What they shared was an obsessive approach to their craft and a deep affection for U.S. hockey, particularly at the collegiate level. Both worked tirelessly to grow the sport — and likely never imagined millions tuning in to watch the Frozen Four on ESPN.

Badger Bob remained ever the teacher and ambassador while leading the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup, in 1991, before he passed away from brain cancer.

“The ultimate what-can-I-do-to-get-more-people-involved-in-hockey guy,” Mark Johnson said.

The same was true of Herbie, who died in a car accident in 2003. Much of his early motivation was seeing America constantly play second fiddle.

“There was a Canadian dominance in the NHL and the Soviets and Czechs dominating the world arena,” Dan Brooks said. “That just lit a fire under my father.”

Everywhere you looked Wednesday, you could see their legacies alive and well at Consol. The Penguins' Badger Bob-coined slogan — “It's a Great Day for Hockey” — is everywhere, and St. Cloud State has several connections to Herbie, who took a one-year coaching job there in 1986-87.

Herbie's mission was to raise the school's profile and move it toward Division I status. He led the team to the Division III semifinals and later worked behind the scenes to secure funding for a new arena.

St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko was a student assistant under Herbie in 1987. One of his better players is freshman winger Jonny Brodzinski, whose dad, Mike, was St. Cloud State's captain in '86-87.

Any good stories from that year? Everybody has a good Herbie story.

Jonny laughed: “He would bring my dad out in the hallway and chew him out, but he'd leave the doorway cracked so the entire team could hear.”

The Penguins' hockey operations department is a living, breathing testament to U.S. college hockey, starting with GM Ray Shero (St. Lawrence) and coach Dan Bylsma (Bowling Green).

Before Shero, Craig Patrick ran the Penguins. He'd been an assistant under Herbie with the Miracle on Ice team and later hired Herbie and Badger Bob into the Penguins organization (at different times, of course).

In the end, you have to believe Badger Bob and Herbie would have gotten along this weekend, if only for the awards ceremony.

“Certainly, they could have had a wonderful conversation about their families and talked hockey,” said Mark Johnson, who starred on the '80 Olympic team. “The room would have been full of people — and they would have had fun watching.”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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