Eddie Johnston: A Hockey Life

As farewells go, 'What a way for me to go out'

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The legendary Scotty Bowman? "He was the captain of the first team I played for," long-time Penguins official Eddie Johnston was saying the other day in his Upper St. Clair home. "The Montreal Royals of the Quebec Junior League. I was 16 or 17. He terrorized me."

The great Bobby Orr? "Best man at my wedding and godfather to one of my kids," Johnston said.

The one and only Mario Lemieux? "He's been good to me and my family. I've been so blessed," Johnston said, eyes tearing up just a bit.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

That everybody should be so lucky to retire after a career touched by such greatness?

Johnston, 73, gave up his title as senior advisor to Penguins general manager Ray Shero after the team won the Stanley Cup last month. He'll still be on the payroll because everyone in the organization, from Lemieux on down, loves him and wants him around. He'll still be at some home games, make a trip or two with the club, appear at corporate and alumni functions and be there should Shero ask for advice about anything. But mostly, E.J. --- as everybody knows him -- will spend the rest of his days just being E.J., playing a lot of golf, shaking a lot of hands and telling stories from a life in hockey and one of the most remarkable careers in Pittsburgh sports history.

Many of those stories will be about Orr, who joined the Boston Bruins at 18 in 1966 and quickly became the best player in NHL history. Johnston was a goaltender on that Boston club, a high-profile guy known as "Downtown Eddie" because of his love of the nightlife. This was long before Johnston's wife, Diane, and three kids, Michele, E.J. Jr., and Joe came along.

Orr's father asked Johnston if Orr could live with him.

"Ah, I don't know if that's such a good idea, Mr. Orr," Johnston said.

"I insist," Orr's dad said. "It'll be good for the boy."

This is when the stories really get good.

"Bobby would drive me into town every night in my Cadillac," Johnston said. "He'd go to a movie or something and then pick me up at the bars. I'd hop into the backseat and he'd drive us home. I ended up buying him a chauffeur's hat. He'd wear the thing. Can you imagine that? The best player in the game by about eight miles doing something like that?"

Orr and Johnston still laugh about those days. They talk at least twice a week by telephone, often reminiscing about their great Bruins' teams that won the Cup in 1970 and '72. One of Johnston's most prized possessions is a limited-edition picture of Orr and fellow Boston legends Ted Williams and Larry Bird that Orr gave him as a gift. The photograph -- autographed by all three Hall of Famers -- has a prominent spot on Johnston's basement/game room wall, not far from pictures of him with Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como and Canada Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, among many others.

"A special guy," Johnston said of Orr.

Johnston also treasures his relationship with Lemieux. He was the Penguins' general manager when the team made Lemieux the No. 1 overall pick in the 1984 draft. There was some pressure to trade that pick for a package of players because the Penguins were so awful.

"When I first got here as the coach [in '80], we only had 23 players on the roster," Johnston said. "Every guy at camp made the team. Our extra guy was a kid named [Jim] Hamilton.

"The only reason we made the playoffs that year was our power play. I used the pick play. I learned that from [Boston Celtics Hall of Famer] Tommy Heinsohn."

In a Boston bar, of course.

Using beer cans and ketchup bottles as players.

But back to Lemieux ...

"The first day of camp, Mr. DeBartolo" -- Penguins owner Edward DeBartolo Sr. -- "says to me, 'Thank God you didn't trade that pick,' " Johnston said. "There was no way I was going to trade it. We were getting a guy who comes along once in a lifetime. Mellon Arena would be a parking lot now if not for Mario. There would be no hockey in Pittsburgh."

Johnston built much of the foundation for the Penguins' Cup-wining teams of '91 and '92, but he wasn't around to enjoy those moments. He left in '89 to become general manager of the Hartford Whalers and made the '91 trade that sent Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson to the Penguins for John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski. The deal put the Penguins over the top and led to Johnston's firing in Hartford, though he still defends it.

"The only reason I traded Ulf was because his agent said he was going back to Sweden to play," Johnston said. "I had to trade Ronnie before the deadline because the owner [Richard Gordon] ordered me to trade him. He had some sort of falling out with Ronnie ...

"That wasn't a bad trade for Hartford. Cullen was a good player and Zalapski scored 20 goals for us."

Still ...

"That was such a great trade for the Penguins that they probably should given me a small ring or something," Johnston said, fairly giggling.

General manager Craig Patrick did much better, bringing Johnston back to the Penguins for good to coach the team in '93. Johnston still holds club records for games coached (516) and won (232).

Over the years, Johnston has served in a variety of roles, including assistant general manager and assistant coach. Invariably, he was the guy Patrick and then Shero turned to when they needed something.

What a career ride for Johnston.

What a ride for Pittsburgh.

"Do you realize how blessed this city has been?" Johnston asked. "We've had the best player in hockey for the past 25 years. Mario. [Jaromir] Jagr. Then, Mario came back. Now Sid [Crosby] and [Evgeni] Malkin ... it's crazy. Some teams never get one guy like that.

"They got a real pop at a few more Cups now. The best young players in the league, they're here right now. It should be that way for the next 10 years or so."

Johnston isn't greedy. Three Cups are enough for him. "I can give each of my kids a ring now," he said.

Johnston had his day with the Cup July 11, hauling it all over Upper St. Clair. It was hard to tell who had a better time -- him or those who had the honor of being in the Cup's presence.

"What a way for me to go out," Johnston said. "It's time. They have such a great hockey staff in place now."

The man's eyes teared up again.

What a life it's been for a kid who literally had to fight his way out of Montreal's mean West End, making $7 a bout against small-town tough guys and convicts from the local penitentiary.

Here's hoping Johnston's retirement is just as wonderful.

He has his family. He has his health. My goodness, the man is 73 and still doesn't need glasses. He shot his age at Williams Country Club in Weirton, W. Va., this month! He has his memories. And he has his friends.

There will be plenty of time this winter for Johnston to finally use the Florida home in Pompano Beach that he's owned for 40 years. Dead ahead, though, is another golf match with Lemieux and former Penguins star Pierre Larouche at the Club at Nevillewood.

Really, we all should be so lucky.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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