In the Shadow of Greatness: An Interview with Eddie Johnston by @Medina_Marie17

Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!  Oh what a day Sunday turned out to be. From beginning to end just one magical, momentous day and I was fortunate enough to be a part of it all.

Jeff Millard and Eddie Johnston
would like to begin by thanking Jeff Millard for inviting our staff writers out to the U.S. Open Kick-Off “block party” at Golf Galaxy (in Robinson) along with the promoters and staff of Taylormade Golf Company (an Adidas affiliate) for sponsoring/hosting the event. It was a great, family friendly atmosphere with giveaways, U.S Open ticket prizes, as well as demos and fittings for new club for those who are into golf.


I will admit… I have never been a golf fan so I was a little out of place with the whole U.S Open hype and I have swung a club all of once in my life. I will, however, give anyone a good game of mini golf anytime they want.


The event also welcomed some local sports celebrities from across the eras of Pittsburgh sports history. One of those celebrities was famed and well respected former Penguins Head Coach and General Manager, Eddie Johnston.  A big golf fan and player in his spare time. He is a former goalie for the Boston Bruins and “mentor” to Bobby Orr. He was one of the last goalies in that time to start wearing a face mask but after taking a puck to the face (from Orr), he adopted the practice in 1965. He was also head coach for the Chicago Blackhawks before coming to Pittsburgh.

 He is revered as the “Godfather” of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise and was the GM that brought us Mario Lemieux in 1984 (from all of us, THANK YOU). He remained Head Coach until the end of the 1987-88 season.  He would later return to Pittsburgh for a second had coaching stint (from 1993-1997). The team would go 153-98-25 during that time and lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals in 1996.  For more history on Eddie Johnston, you can Google it.


He is, as one sports writer called him, a “…man of the people.” Always easy to talk to, welcoming of any and all questions and will tell his stories of the NHL for anyone who will listen. Mr. Johnston (or E.J as most of the world knows him as), was gracious enough to let me pick his brain in an intimate one-on-one interview before meeting with fans for autographs. He was a joy to talk to and could easily be anyone’s grandfather. He is just one swell (yes I said swell) man.


The following is the Q&A session between Mr. Eddie Johnston and me:


MMC:  “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me. This is such a big moment for me so please pardon my slight “star-struck-ness”.


EJ: “I am glad to do it. Thank you for asking, not a problem at all”


MMC:  “I wanted to start with just an ice breaker type of question. Being a former Head Coach of the team, as well as General Manager, what was your favorite team uniform color scheme/layout?


EJ: “Well when I came in as head coach, the team was in blue and black, I mean blue and white when I started. Me and Paul Martha went to the NHL because the Pirates and Steelers were in black and gold so we made an application to get everything done for the city. And a couple of teams, especially Boston who I played for, for a long time. And they (the NHL) were a little reluctant to do it. But I think when we went to the black and gold, we just changed the whole image. I think it was great for us, not just for us but for the whole city. It gives an identity to all three teams”


MMC: “As of today, it is exactly 7 years from when the Penguins last won a Stanley Cup. What would it mean to you as a former coach/GM and then to the team in general to win the Cup on the same day as their last?”


EJ: “This would be fantastic. This has been a great week because 32 years ago, a few days ago, was when I drafted Mario Lemieux. So this would be a great week to finish it off with bringing the Cup home.


MMC: “You are known to throw quite the celebration for Cup championships. What plans do you have in place as a possibility for tonight’s win?”


EJ: “What I am going to do this year is take it to our golf club and, uh, my daughter, she has a place on a cul-de-sac and last year we had a few thousand people come and people brought their babies and were putting the babies in the Cup and everything. It’s a great celebration so hopefully we can do that again.


MMC: “That sounds like a whole bunch of fun.”


EJ: “It is. It is a lot of fun.”


MMC: “As I am sure you have heard, the Penguins instilled a new goal song this year. What do you think of ‘Party Hard?’


EJ: Anytime we score, I’d be happy to hear it a few more times. Which would be a good indication that we are winning n’at”.

(For the record, yes, he does say the classic Pittsburgh-ese phrase, n’at, quite often).


MMC: “Being in the NHL as long as you have (60 years), what is or are your most fond memories of your time spent as a player or otherwise?”


EJ: “Well, I think I was fortunate enough to win two Cups as a player with Boston, ya know and that’s, that’s the ultimate. I think when I became GM, to announce that we had drafted Mario, I think that was not only great for the league but for the city. And he has been phenomenal on and off the ice. I have to say, basically, those two are the biggest for me.”

MMC: “Are you pleased with the way hockey has progressed since your time behind the bench and as General Manager in regards to player development?”

EJ: Oh, just right here alone, we got about 15 kids right now playing in the NHL. Ya know, we got (Brandon) Saad over there (in Columbus) and Gibson who is a goal keeper, but we got about 12 more right now and I think we’re probably going to end up with about 25-30 of them because this year, there are a couple of guys mentioned in the draft, high school kids, who are very, very good. So the program has been terrific here. Everybody from the area that has played I the NHL and contributed have become pretty good hockey players. It’s a big thing. There are more rinks now. Better coaching, better high school coaching. Video helps a lot and I think Mario Lemieux has an unbelievable effect on minor league hockey as well as high school hockey. It was the same with (Bobby) Orr in Boston. All of a sudden all the kids wanted to play hockey.


MMC: “That being said about more kids wanting to play hockey, protection is a huge deal right now. You didn’t use a mask much at all. What do you think of the advancements in goalie protection and in implementation of concussion protocol?”


EJ: “Well I think the equipment is terrific. It’s a lot lighter than when I played, but I think what they are doing now with the concussions, in every sport, it’s become a big thing now. And goal keepers, if they take one off the head, mask or no make or helmet, when you get hit with a puck it’s like a frozen puck. I know because I have had some injuries so I think the equipment and the protection for the goalies is terrific and I think with the concussion situation, they (the coaches and league) don’t tolerate it now. If they have any indication you aren’t feeling too well, they bring you in right away, give you some tests and if you don’t pass, you’re not playing”.


MMC: “To go along with that question, there has been talk of wanting to decrease the size of goalie pads as well as wide the goal mouth in order to increase scoring. What is your take?”


EJ: “I just think leave the goalies alone. They score enough goals. The equipment is a lot better, a lot bigger than when I played. I don’t think they will make the net larger though, I don’t think that is going to happen”


MMC: “Speaking of other changes, let’s talk about the possible expansion to Las Vegas. In your own opinion, who would be on your protection list besides the obvious stars?”


EJ: “I don’t know how many players they are going to allow to protect, 10-15, or whatever it is. You got your bigs; Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Fleury, uh, Kessel and now Murray. It all depends on if they say you have to protect 15 and then you can lose one and then put one more back on. No indication has been made though as to what they are going to do yet. But it is a pretty good chance Las Vegas may be coming in because they had to have 10,000 person fan base and they have that already. That will probably happen at the draft this year, IF they pass for that.


MMC: “Why do you think the NHL passed on Quebec City”?


EJ: “Well, right now the Canadian dollar is at, like, thirty-five cents below and you are all paid, the coaches and players, they are all paid with American money. So you have to add another 15-20 million dollars to get a franchise. I think they will eventually get one once the Canadian dollar n’at goes up but right now it would be a big hit with it (the Canadian dollar) being thirty-five cents down. It’s pretty tough.

MMC: "Speaking of players and protections, the hot button topic right now is Fleury or Murray. All indications, right now, are that Murray could be the go-to next season.  With the (Dallas) Stars looking for a better goalie, do you allow Fleury to explore a trade possibility? Should the team let him go?”



EJ: “I wouldn’t trade Fleury. He is one of the top 2-3 best goalies in the league right now. Murray has been phenomenal but we would not be in the position we are in right now unless Fleury played the way he did. He is the premiere goal keeper in the NHL. What you do is you bring Murray along a little at a time and he is going to take over…eventually. But I wouldn’t move Fleury if it were me right now”.


MMC: ”Alright, you have been so amazing. It has been a great conversation with you. One final question. Everyone involved with hockey on any level was devastated to hear of the passing of the great Gordie Howe. Can you please share a memory or experience or personal sentiment of the kind of person Gordie was during your time playing with him.


EJ: “Wow, I have a few experiences with him that’s for sure, as a player. He has scored a few goals on me. When they say ‘Mr. Hockey’, he was Mr. Hockey. Both on and off the ice. There was nobody like this guy. He was a special player and a special person. He won scoring championships. He’d play any way you’d want to play. The best way to play against him was to just leave him alone”

(pauses and laughs)

But, no he was and will be Mr. Hockey. Nothing more appropriate to name him. One of the greatest of all time. There will never be another one like him.
PI Staff writer, Medina with Eddie Johnston

Great insights from a great man and a giant among men in the NHL. Many thanks again to Mr. Johnston. I wonder how I get an invitation to that party….hmmm.

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About Medina Menozzi

I write about the Penguins and anything associated with them. I work too much. I'm obsessed with Nutella. I could live off pizza and cereal. Kat Stratford is my spirit animal.
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