The story of Johnny Wilson

Johnny Wilson, uncle of Leafs coach Ron Wilson, when he played for the Red Wings. (QMI Agency file...

Johnny Wilson, uncle of Leafs coach Ron Wilson, when he played for the Red Wings. (QMI Agency file photo)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:06 PM ET

TORONTO - When Ron Wilson walked in to the Joe Louis Arena Friday night he instinctively looked around but something was missing. It had never been like this for him in all the years he’s been visiting The Joe as a coach. His Uncle Johnny, the former Red Wings head coach, the fixture at Wings games forever, the one-time NHL ironman, the four-time Stanley Cup champion, wasn’t there.

He was home watching on television.

“When I’m sitting down, I feel like a million bucks,” said Johnny Wilson, 82, talking loudly into a telephone. “But when I get up, I’ve got this oxygen thing I’ve got to carry around with me. I’ve had a little trouble with my lungs after an operation. I’ve got to have this damn thing with me all the time. I’m hanging in there as best I can for an old guy. But sometimes you need to slow down.”

This isn’t necessarily one of those times. This is the weekend he adores. Toronto in Detroit on Friday night. Detroit at Toronto on Saturday night. Never mind it’s pre-season. The Leafs don’t visit Detroit any time this upcoming regular season. He began his playing career for the Red Wings, ended it for the Maple Leafs. The two teams he cares passionately about playing each other. Both are in his blood for all kinds of reasons.

“Just had a good talk with my nephew, Ron,” said Uncle Johnny. “These may be exhibition games but I don’t look at it that way. Tomorrow it’s Hockey Night In Canada. Don Cherry and all that. I coached against Don Cherry when I was in Pittsburgh and he was in Boston. Harry Sinden was the GM. I don’t miss a game on Hockey Night.

“He’s (Ron) got a tough job in Toronto. I told him, he’s got to get those players fired up. He knows the game. He knows what has to be done. You can stand in the dressing room sometimes and give these kids all kinds of advice but the problem is, once they hit the ice, it’s all turned over to the players. I was a left winger. I don’t know how I’d react to all this coaching today. I’d go out there and react to the situations as they transpire. I’d do it instinctively. Today, you’ve got somebody telling you, you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that, I think I’d go out there and be too afraid of making a mistake.”

Johnny Wilson loves talking hockey. And he liked nothing better than to hang with his old teammates and watch the current Red Wings play. But now the visits come to the house instead of having meet and greets at the Joe. And the visits come regularly. One day it’s Ted Lindsay. One day it’s Alex Delvecchio. One day it’s either Gordie Howe or Bill Gadsby. “I’ve been deeply involved with the Red Wings alumni for years,” said Wilson. “I want to stay as involved as I can.”

Wilson listens to all the conversation about what’s right and wrong and needs to be corrected in hockey with all the patience of someone who played in another generation. He looks at four players — Jacques Plante, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky — as having more to do with changing and improving hockey than anyone else. They, along with Howe, are the legends he likes to talk about most.

“Jacques Plante was the first goalie to play the puck,” said Wilson. “Before that, goalies just stayed in their net. But he came out behind the net and started stopping it and setting it. Nobody had ever done that before. That revolutionized how we played and how defenceman got to move the puck.

“Bobby Hull had the first great slapshot. Maybe Boom Boom Geoffrion had a slapshot before him, but nothing like Hull’s. He started taking those slapshots and nobody knew what to think. And then he came up with the curved stick — and the combination of the two. That was something.

“What Bobby Orr did back then was unbelievable. Defenceman didn’t rush the puck. They would pass it to the forwards and stay back. Very seldom did anyone go end-to-end. Bobby Orr did it all the time. There’s been nobody like him.

“And in our era, the puck went behind the net and the wingers went digging for it while the centre stayed in front of the net to score. Gretzky started going behind the net. He turned it into an offensive play. He’d look out and see a winger on one side, a winger on the other, and two defenceman. And you didn’t know where the puck was going. That changed the way everybody plays.”

In between talking Plante and Gretzky and Orr and Hull, Johnny Wilson needed to reflect on his junior days in Windsor, where he got to play on the same team with his brother, Larry (Ron’s father) and his good friend and school mate Marcel Pronovost.

“I remember one time, the three of us were seated on a bench not far from the Ambassador Bridge on the Windsor side. And I remember Marcel looking across the river and you could see the arena, and he said: “Do you think any of us will ever get there?”

All three ended up playing for the Red Wings: Pronovost became a Hall of Fame defenceman; Johnny had a wonderful NHL career, including not missing a single game over an eight season period; Larry played two full seasons in Chicago, parts of three years in Detroit and mostly made his living in that six-team era in the American Hockey League.

The four Stanley Cup wins were memorable enough for Johnny but the AHL championship he won as a coach in Springfield in 1971 stands out in his mind for personal reasons.

“I have a picture in my family room that I love. I was coaching Springfield. My brother, Larry, was coaching Providence. We won the Calder Cup against his team and we both went on the ice after the Cup was presented and he came over to me and lifted my arm in victory and you know what he said to me? 'You’re the greatest brother in the world.' That was an amazing moment for me. My mother and father had come down to the games and my mother had a hard time knowing who to cheer for. I told her to pull for the home team in each game. And she used to cry before every game. The series, I think, went seven games and we won it at home in Springfield.

“Billy Smith was my goalie on that team and I think he was a rookie. I said to him one day that season, ‘The next time I see a player in front of our net, whack him in the ankles. I don’t want to see anybody in front of our net.” And after that, Billy did that all the time.

“And after he won his first Stanley Cup, he called me and thanked me for all I’d done for him. I thought that was really nice.”

Maybe Toronto should thank Johnny Wilson for all he did for the Leafs in the 1960s. “You know,” he said, “I got Red Kelly traded to Toronto.”

The Leafs were practicing at Ted Reeve Arena one afternoon and afterwards Wilson mentioned to a writer that he thought the Leafs could get Kelly from Detroit in exchange for a young player they had named Marc Reaume.

“Kelly and another guy were traded to New York for Eddie Shack and somebody else. But they didn’t report. I was in Toronto and I talked to Red about it. The deal had fallen apart. I said ‘It’s too bad you can’t come back to Toronto. It’s a great place to play.’ And I knew we had a guy on our team, Marc Reaume, that Jack Adams liked. So Punch Imlach came up to me after practice and said ‘Did I hear something that you told a writer that if I called Adams, the deal would be made.’ So he called him, and true enough, the deal was made.

“Red Kelly came to Toronto, moved from defence to centre, and the rest is history.” A history of four Stanley Cup wins in Toronto.

For Wilson, the connection, still, with Toronto and Detroit. “I hope the Leafs get in the playoffs. Detroit has been there for years. They’ve got a good team but I’ve got a soft spot for Toronto. Blood is thicker than water, you know. My nephew is a member of my family. That’s my brother’s boy. I think of Larry all the time. He’s the one who got the kid’s interested.”

Turned hockey into something of a family business.


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