Just three months removed from lifting the Stanley Cup, Bob Johnson was eating dinner at a restaurant in late August 1991 when he was stricken with with what appeared to be a stroke.
The actual diagnosis was much worse. Johnson, whose indefatigable positivity had been a key to the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup the previous season, had a brain tumor. He had just a few months left to live.
“We heard it wasn’t good, but we’re thinking, ‘OK, maybe he’ll be back in December, maybe he’ll be back in January, maybe he’ll be back for the playoffs,’” winger Phil Bourque recalled.
“I remember that thinking. When we didn’t see him or he wasn’t coming around and we heard he wasn’t getting better, then the reality kind of starts to set in and you’re like, ‘Oh this is pretty bad.’
“I think we all found peace where most hockey players do, at the rink. We kind of slowly but surely started talking about, ‘Hey, let’s do this for Badger Bob.’”
That’s exactly what the Penguins did, rallying around the loss of their coach to put together a playoff run for the ages and claim their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Like most defending champs, the Penguins didn’t exactly start off the season red-hot, with a 5-6-3 start to the season.
“It’s a little bit of that fat cat thing, too,” winger Bob Errey said. “You don’t get back to the basics, you’re just not prepared at the start, you had a good celebration. You’re just not prepared, mentally and physically for the long grind.”
Key dates in Penguins history
Badger Bob Dies
After suffering a brain aneurysm in August 1991, Johnson succumbs to brain cancer. Johnson's legacy, and slogan, "A great day for hockey", has never truly left the organization.
Stanley Cup 2.0
The first NHL game played in June completed the Penguins' dominant run to a second Stanley Cup in as many seasons. Their 11th consecutive playoff victory of the season was a 6-5 win at Chicago Stadium. Only one franchise, Detroit in 1997-98, has won in back-to-back years since.
Stop and score
Lemieux finishes his final radiation treatment in the morning, then scores his 40th goal of the season at night during a 5-4 loss at Philadelphia. "It's my nature to fight back," Lemieux says afterward.
These Penguins also had to deal with the fact that their coach was in the final stages of battling brain cancer. Still, Johnson stayed in touch from his hospital bed in Colorado.
He would watch tapes of the team’s games, and fax back written ideas for game plans or power plays drills. When the Penguins played a preseason game against the Flames in Denver in September, Johnson was there in a wheelchair, unable to speak but communicating with his old team through written notes.
Johnson couldn’t make it to the home opener, when the Penguins raised the Stanley Cup banner he helped win the year before, and he died less than two months later, on Nov. 26, 1991.
“There were a lot of tears shed,” Errey said. “I remember standing around center ice, looking up into the banners when they raised the banner the following season, the tears coming down our faces.
“‘A great day for hockey’ will live on forever, and he was just a tremendous man.”
Director of player development Scotty Bowman, who had already won five Stanley Cups coaching the Canadiens, stepped in as interim coach. For as much experience as Bowman had, he also brought a change in style from Johnson.
“Well, if you walk into a room and it’s dark, and you turn a switch on, about that different,” winger Troy Loney said.
The change was so dramatic that some of the Penguins players asked that Bowman stop coaching practices midseason. He agreed, delegating that task to his assistants.
“The thing with Scotty that he recognized was, ‘Hey, I don’t need to come in here and make this my team because this team was successful as the team that it was,’” Loney said. “He really didn’t mess around with things too much.”
Despite going 6-14-4 in January and February, the Penguins bounced back with a 10-3-1 March to claim the third playoff spot in the Patrick Division and set up a first-round matchup with Washington.
The Capitals won the first two games at home, but the Penguins bounced back with a 6-4 win in Game 3. In Game 4 at Civic Arena, Washington’s Dino Ciccarelli scored a hat trick to pave the way to a 7-2 Capitals win and a 3-1 series lead.
“Dino had a big night, and I remember we got booed off the ice,” Bourque said.
The Penguins reassessed their game plan after Game 4, deciding to try and slow the game down, limit Ciccarelli’s effectiveness and let their special teams take over. They won Game 5, 5-2, to stave off elimination, and Mario Lemieux — who finished the series with seven goals and 10 assists, despite missing the first game — scored a pair of power-play goals to take Game 6, 6-4, and force a Game 7.
Lemieux got the Penguins on the board with a short-handed goal in the first, and Jaromir Jagr gave them a 2-1 lead with a power-play score at 9:40 of the second. The lead held up until Joe Mullen’s empty-netter with 33 seconds left sealed the comeback.
“I was right at the glass that separated the two benches, and I remember looking at their bench and just looking at the look in their eyes,” Bourque said. “I remember jumping up and down like I was an 8-year-old kid. It’s the most satisfying victory of my career.”
The Penguins fell behind 2-1 in the next round to the Rangers, but their 6-5 defeat in Game 3 ended up being the last time they lost in that postseason, as they won 11 in a row to dispatch the Rangers, Bruins and Blackhawks — the last two in 4-0 sweeps — en route to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
“Everyone’s trying to knock you off, everyone knows you’re talented, everybody knows you’re the champs,” Bourque said. “I take as much pride in that, winning back to back, as just about anything I’ve done in my life.”
When the Penguins’ names were engraved on the Cup months later, there was one name they were sure to include. The first name of the third row, “Bob Johnson.”
“You look at your coach passing away, you have to throw the pieces together,” Loney said. “It draws you together very close as a team, and that’s what it did. It really drew us together as a team. Really, what else could happen that we hadn’t either experienced or couldn’t overcome?”
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