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The Border Battle Blog

The Border Battle Blog

Paul Braun (Wisconsin men's hockey play-by-play)

Today it’s called the Border Battle. Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While it’s still a big series between border states, it does not have the same intensity and interest as it did years ago.

I think one of the main reasons for that is Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson.

While I believe Herb and Bob had a mutual respect for each other, I don’t think they liked each other. Those feelings carried over to the coaching staffs, players and the fans.

Everyone who was involved with this rivalry has their own memories of Herb and Bob.

For me several things stand out.

With Bob Johnson it starts with his recommendation that got me the Badger play-by-play job when Bob Miller left Wisconsin. Bob took over as the voice of the NHL's L.A. Kings.

During the 15 years "Badger Bob" was head coach, he was very patient, supportive and extremely gracious with his time in helping educate this hockey novice about the game.  

Also, when you were around Bob as much as I was during those years, you could not help but pick up on his love of the game and his unparalleled enthusiasm for Wisconsin Hockey.   

When I first met Herb Brooks, he was a mystery man. One day he could be impatient, short with his answers and intimidating. The next day he could be gracious, friendly, outgoing and a pleasure to be around.

Over the years I learned to admire and respect him.

Despite my being a “Badger” we always seemed to get along.

During all my years of involvement with the WCHA, I have received one letter from a coach who complemented me on my play-by-play abilities. That letter was from Herb Brooks.    

Herbie was also instrumental in getting me an interview in New York with ABC Sports in 1980. He thought it would be great if I could have been involved with the Olympic telecast in some way.   

Even though ABC was set with Al Michaels and they did not need any other help, I will never forget the fact that Herb made the effort to get me involved.   

As a broadcaster I would get really fired up for the games against the dreaded Gophers.

You never really knew when the fireworks were going to begin. It could start early in the week with a newspaper article that made good bulletin board material - a coaches comment, a Badger player making a comment about the team in his native state, or a jab at one of the Blue Line luncheons.          

One of those times that I remember the most is the year Herb made a comment about the Badger fans.

Early in the week he was quoted by Minnesota media as saying we are playing in the land of the drunks this weekend.

When the Gophers showed up at the Coliseum, Herb Brooks was greeted by about 8,000 people who were wearing paper masks that resembled his face.

Herb loved it. He later told me that at one point in the weekend series there was a quiet moment where he heard a fan calling his name. When he turned around to check out the pesky and agitating Badger fan he heard the guy say. Herbie you cheap blank – blank – blank, it’s your turn to buy. He said the whole team started to laugh hysterically.  

While there was occasionally some laughter and good-natured kidding going on, the competition between Johnson and Brooks was very fierce.  

They were both born in Minnesota, they both attended the university, they were extremely competitive and they both hated to lose. They also had some ferocious recruiting battles.

In fact, I firmly believe that a lot of the tension that existed between Brooks and Johnson was over the recruiting of Craig Norwich.

Craig was a big time player for Edina High School in Minnesota. He wound up picking Wisconsin over Minnesota. Norwich had a great career with the Badgers. He scored 168 points and was an All American selection on Wisconsin’s 1977 NCAA championship team.

Herb told me he left the Norwich home at 11 a.m., one morning and Craig was going to Minnesota. At 2 p.m., that same day, Brooks learned he was going to Wisconsin. That one left a permanent scar on the relationship.  

Even though they had a strained relationship, both Bob and Herb were extremely successful. The way they achieved that success was very different.

John Johannson played for Bob Johnson from 1980-84. John also grew up in Rochester, Minn., so he is uniquely qualified to talk about playing for Bob and the rivalry.      

He told me that "Badger Bob" shaped his team and style of play based on the abilities and personalities of his players. He also said Johnson allowed the unique characters to thrive and develop their talents.

John also said Bob’s team style one year might have no resemblance to what the team might look like just a year or two later if the players and abilities changed as such.

On the other hand, Brooks was more likely to have a system that would require the players to adjust and change to fit his system. You needed to play his way in order to contribute.  

Herb was a very talented man who knew how to shape young men into a unified group who all knew what the other player on the team was going to do, and what he expected of them.

According to Johannson, Herbie more than any other coach had a system that allowed even lesser talented players to contribute in a big way if they played tough, gritty and by the system. He found a way to even make grinders into stars if they played the right way.

His system obviously worked. Herb Brooks won three NCAA championships in 5 years. That is one accomplishment that no other coach in the history of the WCHA has been able to duplicate.

As far as the Border Battle rivalry goes, Johannson would like to see a return to the good old days. That would be some public respect for each other but some personality clashes, some recruiting battles and a few harsh words from behind the bench. According to JJ - that is hockey.

Only time will tell if Wisconsin and Minnesota will ever rekindle the rivalry they used to have.

Even if that does not happen, there is no question that Bob Johnson and Herb Brooks were very special. Their personalities were distinctively different, the coaching styles were very diverse, but the bottom line is that both Bob and Herb had tremendous success and a great impact on the sport of hockey.

For that, both Wisconsin and Minnesota and every fan of the WCHA should be eternally grateful.


Appears in Paul Braun's Reckonings

Tagged with Men's Hockey Blog, Paul Braun, Border Battle, Bob Johnson

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