Obituary: Johnny Wilson / Coach led Penguins to postseason twice
June 14, 1929 - Dec. 27, 2011
December 30, 2011 3:00 PM
By Seth Rorabaugh Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former Penguins coach Johnny Wilson embodied the idea that National Hockey League coaches are "hired to be fired."
In three seasons with the Penguins, Mr. Wilson had compiled a won-lost-tied record of 91-105-44 and directed the team to two playoff appearances in three seasons. Despite having the most coaching wins in the franchise's history until that point, Mr. Wilson was unceremoniously fired on May 8, 1980, by Penguins management while on vacation in Florida.
Mr. Wilson died Tuesday as a result of lung disease in suburban Detroit. He was 82.
Born June 14, 1929, Mr. Wilson, a native of Kincardine, Ontario, was an all-star left winger in the 1950s for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks. Nicknamed "Ironman," Mr. Wilson at one time held the NHL's record for consecutive games played with 580, primarily with Detroit. After winning four Stanley Cup titles with the Red Wings that decade, Mr. Wilson also played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers in the 1960s.
After retiring as a player, Mr. Wilson became a head coach of the American Hockey League's Springfield Kings. He got his first chance to coach in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings as a midseason replacement in 1969-70, where he went 9-34-9.
Following that season, Mr. Wilson held coaching jobs in the 1970s with Springfield and the Red Wings, the Michigan Stags/Baltimore Blades and Cleveland Crusaders of the rival World Hockey Association as well as the NHL's Colorado Rockies.
Mr. Wilson found his greatest success and stability as a coach in Pittsburgh, after becoming the fifth person to hold the position with the Penguins on June 13, 1977.
Colin Campbell, NHL senior executive vice president for hockey operations, played for Mr. Wilson in Colorado and in Pittsburgh as a defenseman.
"He was a good, basic coach." Mr. Campbell said. "He was from the days when coaching was a not so technical position. It was just the head coach and no one else. He didn't have a staff. He had to operate by himself. Believed in conditioning. Good up and down hockey. Sound defensive hockey. Treated the players like men."
Mr. Wilson's first season with the Penguins in 1977-78 saw the club go 25-37-18 and miss the postseason for the first time in three years. Mr. Wilson, like his predecessors, had to deal with significant off-ice issues.
"In hockey in Pittsburgh, for years, it was always up in the air." Mr. Campbell said. "You'd do well, and all of the sudden there would financial issue. It would be stretched pretty thin. It was always something the coach had to deal with."
The Penguins rebounded in 1978-79 with a record of 36-31-13 and returned to the postseason partially with the help of 21-year-old rookie goaltender Greg Millen.
"I can tell you he was responsible for getting me in the National Hockey League," said Mr. Millen, currently a broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "He believed in me that first year. If not for his confidence in me, I'm not sure I would have had the career I had."
Despite having their 1979-80 season record drop to 30-37-13, the Penguins reached the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Mr. Wilson was fired after that and did not return to coaching.
"The Pittsburgh Penguins extend their deepest sympathy to the family of Johnny Wilson," general manager Ray Shero said in a statement. "Johnny ... is remembered here for his work ethic, dedication and absolute passion for the game of hockey. He will be missed."
His death was announced Tuesday via Twitter by his nephew, Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson.
"He was a warrior thru & thru, right to the end," Ron Wilson tweeted. "Our family will miss him dearly."