“Badger” Bob Johnson coined the phrase, “It’s a great day for hockey.”
The legendary University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach lived and breathed for the sport.
James Hessenauer was right there with him.
The longtime Janesville resident left an indelible mark on the local hockey scene—both on and off the ice.
Hessenauer was involved with the Janesville Youth Hockey Club—both as a coach and referee—was the longtime bus driver for the Janesville Craig, Janesville Parker and Janesville Bluebirds hockey teams and had a lifetime love affair with the sport he first learned to play on the frozen lagoon at Traxler Park in Janesville growing up.
Hessenauer died Aug. 28 at St. Croix Hospice in Delavan from heart-related complications.
“Hockey is what we knew and what we wanted to play as kids because of ‘Big Jim,’” said his son, Jim Hessenauer. “We were definitely a hockey family.
“And even as us kids got older, we still either continued playing, coaching or going to games with him.”
The younger Jim Hessenauer graduated from Craig in 1988 and skated two years with the Madison Capitols when he was 14 and 15.
His father drove the Capitols’ bus to all away games both years that his son played with he team.
One of Jim’s favorite hockey memories regarding his father took place on Jan. 27, 1982, when a fight broke out on the Wisconsin bench in a game between Wisconsin and North Dakota at what was then the Dane County Coliseum. Now dubbed “The Water Bottle Game,” North Dakota emptied its bench and a massive brawl ensued on Wisconsin’s bench. It spilled out down the hall into the beer garden area, where UND’s all-time penalty leader, Jim Archibald, got into it with fans.
“They’re fighting out in the aisles and everyplace else,” the Badgers announcer exclaimed. “They’re fighting with the police! They’re fighting with the fans! North Dakota has done it again.”
Big Jim and his daughter, Andrea, were sitting directly behind the Wisconsin bench.
“While this whole thing was going on and everybody was fighting, Big Jim just sat there and carried on a conversation with UW’s backup goalie,” his son said. “And he was literally right there on top of where everything was taking place. But that’s kind of who he was.”
Big Jim drove the Janesville Bluebirds to nearly all of their away games until his health forced him to step down.
He drove motor coach for Van Galder Bus Company for more than 30 years and always insisted that the Bluebirds take a coach and not a school bus to away games.
Longtime Bluebirds coach John Mauermann said Hessenauer was an inspiration to all he came in contact with, not just the players.
“‘Mr. Hess’ to me and my players was constantly giving tips and encouragement to the players, and coaches, too, as he proudly drove the team throughout southern Wisconsin,” Mauermann said. “And no school bus for his boys. ‘Mr. Hess’ convinced the guys at dispatch that the team needed a coach bus to travel for ‘safety’ reasons because of all their equipment.
“’Mr. Hess’ was behind the wheel for the program’s most memorable ride in 2004, when the team won four overtime games in a row before being defeated in the semifinals of the WIAA state tournament.
“Each time we got back on the bus he would say, ‘I knew we could do it, never a doubt,’ and then congratulate each player, plus provide a little tip for each player to work on for the next game. Usually, me being the last person off the bus, you could always see the sense of pride Jim Hessenauer had for doing his job when players got off the bus and each and every player said, ‘Thanks for the ride Mr. Hess.’
“Those words still echo in my mind when I think back on those years he was with our team.”
No matter what nickname he went by, “Big Jim” or “Mr. Hess,” James Hessenauer was simply Mr. Hockey in this city.