Penguins Cup Chronicles: Jim Johnson
Leaked plans of parade routes and a celebration in Minnesota — with the North Stars holding only a 2-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final — provided plenty of incentive for the Penguins.
The only problem was that it wasn’t coming from the Minnesota players, according to defenseman Jim Johnson.
“This has always been a mystery to me. I still would like to find out where this came from,” he said this week. “There was no talk about this in the North Star dressing room. We had our hands full trying to shut down the prolific offense of the Penguins.”
Johnson was well versed with the opposition, having been traded from the Penguins to the North Stars on Dec. 11, 1990, with Chris Dahlquist for Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti in a swap of four defensemen.
The trade came as a surprise to Johnson, who began his career with the Penguins in the 1985-86 season.
“I received a phone call during my pregame meal while at home preparing to play the Chicago Blackhawks,” he said. “I was shocked and, quite frankly, devastated to receive the news. However, there was not much time to contemplate my emotions, as I was told to be at the airport in an hour with bags packed. The Minnesota North Stars had high hopes for me to be in their lineup that evening.”
If there was any consolation, it was being traded to Minnesota, where Johnson had grown up and attended college.
“Even though I was returning to my home state, I was disappointed to be leaving my first pro team and the great city of Pittsburgh and its fans,” he said. “My wife and I enjoyed the community and had developed many special friendships during our five and a half years.”
On the Penguins’ Stanley Cup potential:
“As a player, I entered every season with the goal of winning the Stanley Cup. There certainly was a sense that over my first five seasons with the Penguins we were building something very special; team chemistry, coaching, management was all forming into a championship-caliber organization.”
On “Badger” Bob Johnson:
“Bob was an outstanding individual with great leadership skills and one of the most positive, upbeat individuals that I have ever had the privilege to be around. He cared a great deal about each and every one of his players and made sure he communicated that with them. Each and every night, Bob had an amazing ability to find teachable moments that impacted us as players.
I was real fortunate to have the opportunity to play for Bob following the 1990-91 season again during that summer for Team USA in the Canada Cup. There was a time during the Canada Cup while we were driving downtown through Chicago, Bob had the bus driver pull over to observe five men laboring over a jackhammer. He pointed out to us players that here we were ‘playing a game we love’ and even though we were exhausted, playing three games in three cities in four nights; that this is what some people do for a living. He never passed up a teachable moment.”
On starting the season without Mario Lemieux:
“We all recognized that this was going to be a challenge; that is, to be missing our team leader. However, as professional athletes, we recognize that these situations do arise and to challenge ourselves to bring everything we can to the team.”
On the Penguins’ leaders:
“We had a strong group of veterans that consisted of Bryan Trottier, Paul Coffey, Joe Mullen, in addition to several players who had been with the organization for a number of years like Randy Hillier, Bob Errey, Phil Bourque, Troy Loney and Jay Caufield. I remember this year we had some young players truly come to the forefront such as Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and John Cullen. We also had outstanding goaltending in Tom Barrasso.”
On his role with the Penguins:
“We definitely had players that had specific roles and players recognized how important that is to great teams. During my years playing with the Penguins, I was appreciated for my defensive ability and was often responsible for penalty killing and negating the opposition’s top players in a ‘shutdown’ role.”
On injuries throughout his career:
“I was fortunate to not sustain an injury during my first two seasons, playing in 193 consecutive games and during my career in Pittsburgh I played in over 90 percent of the games. I did have a neck injury several years later in Dallas during the 1993-94 season where I fractured my T-3 vertebra. I did eventually retire in 1998-99 due to post-concussive syndrome.”
On being traded to Minnesota:
“As a child, I had always dreamed of being a North Star; however it was a challenge to pick up and move my family from a place that we had begun to call our own “home.” Of course, my parents and family were thrilled to have me playing back in their state, and I embraced the new challenge in front of me. It was difficult at times and to this day feel fortunate to have played in the city that I grew up and went to college in.”
On the atmosphere in Minnesota:
“I do remember the crowd to be very small and disappointing for such a strong hockey state. This was not what I remember when I was growing up in the Twin Cities, so that was difficult, but over time the play of our team improved. At one point later that season, it was even difficult to get a ticket. Exciting to be part of the turnaround.”
On returning to Pittsburgh nine days after being traded:
“That was very difficult to return and play there after only nine days … but I was able to get to see my wife Jody, my son Derik, who was 10 months old at the time, plus many friends that we were so close with. There were many mixed emotions coming back, but it gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to my great teammates in Pittsburgh.”
On the North Stars’ playoff run:
“We were the Cinderella team that season and gradually the crowds began to return to the Met Center in Bloomington. From Jan. 17 thru the end of the season, we were one of the top teams and felt that we could compete with anybody on any given night. It was during that time the players all bought into what Bob Gainey was teaching, and we started to have success and the belief that we could beat anybody. The first series of the playoffs was with Chicago, the Presidents’ Trophy champions, with 106 points, while we entered the playoffs that season with 68 points. Once we advanced past Chicago, we then played St. Louis, which had 105 points. These were the top two teams in the NHL that season. Then we went on to face the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Edmonton Oilers. With these three major upsets, we advanced on to the Stanley Cup Finals.”
On a hip injury suffered in the playoffs:
“I did miss some games during that postseason due to a muscle tear off my hip. I missed the St. Louis series and returned for the last few games of Edmonton series.”
On playing the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final:
“As a professional, I tried to approach every opponent the same with preparedness and commitment to be the best I could be to help my team.”
On the memories that stand out 20 years later:
“The amazing turnaround of a season and a tremendous playoff run by a great group of guys that came together quickly as a true team. However, I will forever be disappointed that I did not get the experience of hoisting the Stanley Cup.”
On returning to Pittsburgh that summer:
“We returned to Pittsburgh to facilitate the sale of our home while relocating our permanent residence to Minnesota. We always felt it was important to live and be a part of the community where I played. In addition that summer, I took very little time off as it was the Canada Cup and I was honored to be asked to represent my country.”
On the other Jimmy Johnsons in sports:
“Well, while playing for the Dallas Stars I did get (Dallas Cowboys coach) Jimmy Johnson’s dry cleaning. I guess we went to the same place. And I love NASCAR and am a huge fan of Jimmie Johnson. I will be pulling for him to win another Cup.”
On what he’s up to now:
“I have been involved with the NHL in coaching and player development. Last season, I was named the head coach of the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL and was promoted to an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning in February. Since the ownership change this past summer, I have been residing in sunny Scottsdale, Ariz., where my daughter Mia is a senior in high school. I have enjoyed being able to watch my son Derik play in the (British Columbia Hockey League) and am excited that he will be advancing on to play college hockey at my alma mater, University of Minnesota-Duluth, next season.”
Acquired: June 9, 1985 — Signed as free agent
Penguins debut: Oct. 10, 1985
Penguins 1990-91 stats: 24 games, 0 goals, 5 assists, 5 points, 23 PIM
Penguins career stats: 390 games, 14 goals, 95 assists, 109 points, 658 PIM
What he’s up to now: Taking time off from coaching to spend time with family