Much-respected, much-loved sports icon died Saturday at the age of 82
Don Johnson is shown in the stands at the Halifax Metro Centre during a game in the 2008 world hockey championship. Johnson was a president of the Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association who later went on to become president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, now known as Hockey Canada. During his tenure as CAHA president, Johnson earned a reputation as a fierce defender of Canada’s interests in international hockey and in 1975, was instrumental in bringing this country back as a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). — Telegram file photo by Robin Short
Penning a tribute to Don Johnson, the well-known and equally well-respected sports administrator from St. John’s, can prove to be a challenge for a sportswriter.
Challenge in the sense that who does one call to discuss Johnson’s life and career?
How do you narrow down hundreds of candidates — thousands? — to one or two?
So we will take a snippet of various comments left on The Telegram’s web site, and that of Carnell’s, where Johnson is resting today and Tuesday, before Wednesday morning’s funeral mass from St. Pius X Church:
• “Don was a special and unique person who will be missed by all who knew him ... He made a difference.”
• “It has been an honor to call you a friend.”
• “He touched many lives during his lifetime, and I will always remember his great character and his big heart.”
• “Even though we only just met him in March during the IceCaps Luncheon for Special Olympics NL, we felt that we had known him during our lifetimes. He touched so many lives during his life and we will always remember his words of encouragement to us.”
• “Donald Johnson added quality to our city and our province and we will miss him.”
• “Don was not only a great human being and family man, but is without a doubt one of the most respected, influential and important sports figures in Newfoundland and in all of Canada.”
• “I don’t see how the Don Johnson Cup can ever be the same without Don.”
• “To know Don was a privilege, to call him friend was a blessing.”
Johnson passed away Saturday morning at age 82, leaving the local, provincial and, in some respects, national sports community mourning.
Part of famed St. Pat’s Boyle Trophy winners
A Halifax native, Johnson was transferred to St. John’s in 1959 with the Bank of Nova Scotia, and immediately joined the St. Pat’s hockey team in the old St. John’s Senior Hockey League.
On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, 1960, St. Pat’s ended a 16-year rule of Boyle Trophy domination by St. Bon’s, beating the BlueGolds 4-2 at old Memorial Stadium.
“Outside family moments,” Johnson would say years later, “when that buzzer sounded, I felt a feeling that I’d never felt before, and one I’ve never felt since.”
Following his playing career, as a rugged St. Pat’s defenceman, Johnson moved into the administrative side of things and the result is a resume several pages long.
He is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame, Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Fame, Royal St. John’s Regatta Hall of Fame and St. John’s Softball Hall of Fame, and held honorary life memberships with Hockey Canada, Sport Newfoundland and Labrador and is in the Canada Games Council’s Hall of Honour.
Among the administrative positions Johnson held were president of the Royal St. John’s Regatta Committee, president of the St. John’s Senior Softball League, charter member of the St. John’s Maple Leafs board of directors, member of the Canada Games Council’s Technical and Site Selection Committees, member of the board of directors for Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the national Youth Bowling Council of Canada, the Sports Federation of Canada, the National Sport and Recreation Administration Centre in Ottawa and Bally Haly Golf and Country Club.
He was also a long-time member of the St. John’s Molson Athlete of the Year Committee and served on the St. John’s Capitals management committee with Terry Trainor back in the early 70s.
It is hockey for which Johnson was best-known.
He was elected president of the St. John’s Senior Hockey League in 1964 and two years later, took over as head of what was then known as the Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association.
It was on Johnson’s watch that Newfoundland and Labrador joined the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association as a separate branch. Also during that time, minor hockey within the province became part of the NAHA.
As president of the NAHA, Johnson was front and centre in one of the most important debates staged in the history of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
First, the background: prior to 1977, teams were not permitted to use professionals in the world hockey championship.
At the 1969 International Ice Hockey Federation Congress, a provision was approved permitting world championship A pool teams to use nine pros beginning in 1970, when the tournament would be held in Canada for the first time.
The prospect of using pros did not sit well with the International Olympic Committee, which began making waves about countries — particularly the Soviet Union — losing their amateur status if they played in the world hockey championship.
So the decision was reversed, sparking outrage within some quarters of Canada and murmurs of this country’s withdrawal from the 1970 world championship to be held in Montreal and Winnipeg.
John Munro, then the federal sports minister, called an emergency meeting of the CAHA officers at the Royal York Hotel on Boxing Day, 1969. At stake was Canada’s future within the IIHF.
“I had my mind made up even before I left Newfoundland that Canada would withdraw if the nine pros couldn’t be used,” said Johnson.
"I wasn't concerned about the 1970 tournament because I felt there was much more at stake in future years. I thought by hauling out, it would force the Europeans to challenge our best, who were obviously our pros.
“I believed amateur hockey in Canada was through as far as international competition of any large scale, anyway.”
Before he left for Toronto, Johnson was motivated by another St. John’s hockey personality during a chance meeting while Christmas shopping.
“Remember it like it was yesterday,” Howie Meeker said in a Telegram story four years ago. “It was at Woolco. I told Don it was God damned near time to let the world know who’s boss in hockey.”
“I remember,” Johnson says, “saying to myself, ‘It’s time. What the hell. Tell the Russians and (Bunny) Ahearne (the IIHF president from England) to go to hell.’”
When the CAHA convened for the Boxing Day meeting, it had $950,000 in the bank as a deposit for the 1970 worlds. Nine hundred and fifty thousand reasons the CAHA’s officers were reluctant to withdraw.
“I was a voice in the wilderness,” Johnson says. “At best, I got lukewarm support and in some cases outright objection to what I was saying.”
Johnson argued the Soviets, in particular, were inherently pro hockey players.
After several hours of discussion, Johnson moved that unless Canada was permitted to use the nine pros, it would forfeit the upcoming 1970 worlds and withdraw from future world championships.
The head of the CAHA, Earl Dawson of Winnipeg, who was in favour of keeping the tournament, called for a vote on the motion, “to get it out of the way.”
Surprisingly, hands started going up around the table.
“I remember Earl said, ‘My God, it’s passed,’” Johnson recalls.
Canada withdrew and remained on the sidelines for another five years.
In 1975, Johnson became the first person from Newfoundland to be elected president of the CAHA, and was at the helm when Canada rejoined the IIHF.
That happened at the 1975 IIHF Congress in Switzerland, where Johnson was Canada’s delegate. Germany’s Guenther Sabetzki was running against Ahearne for the IIHF’s top post and the Canadians cooked a deal with Sabetzki to support him in exchange for Canada getting its pros.
“Ahearne didn’t have a chance,” Johnson said.
“Us getting back in was like a snowball going downhill,” he added. “I quietly take a lot of credit for Canada going out, but the snowball started going and by ’75 in Switzerland, no one could stop that, including the Russians.
“But they were all happy to have us back. We could help the IIHF and a lot of countries make a lot of money.”
“Don didn’t get the credit he deserved from the CAHA,” his long-time friend Alan Eagleson said Sunday night, “for getting Canada back into international hockey.”
Canada went into Vienna for the 1977 world championship with Phil and Tony Esposito, Ronnie Ellis, Rod Gilbert, Jean Pronovost, a young Pierre Larouche and others and beat the Czechs and Swedes, but lost twice to the Soviets.
“The tradeoff that we would go back to international hockey would be if those countries played in the (first) Canada Cup (in 1976),” said Eagleson of the hugely-popular Canada Cup tournaments on which Johnson would serve on the organizing committee.
But Eagleson said perhaps Johnson’s biggest move involved the 1978 world junior championship in Montreal.
Prior to ’78, Canada only used club teams in the world juniors, like the Hamilton Fincups or the Cornwall Royals.
“Don brokered a meeting between myself and (Western Hockey League president) Ed Chynoweth, (Ottawa 67s owner) Howard Darwin and (CAHA junior vice-president) Roland Mercier,” Eagleson said. “We said, ‘Look, we want the world junior championship be like the Canada Cup. We’ve got to send our best, so give us your best. Even if you have to shut down your leagues.’”
They agreed and Wayne Gretzky, Rob Ramage, Paul Reinhart and Craig Hartsburg, among others, donned Canada’s colours. And Johnson served as tournament chairman.
“Don was instrumental in bringing it together,” Eagleson said, “because those guys couldn’t agree to Monday if it was Tuesday.”
Because of his involvement, Johnson was named an honorary life member of Hockey Canada, and the Atlantic junior B hockey championship today plays for the Don Johnson Cup.
“It’s a sad day for hockey,” said Eagleson of Johnson’s passing.
“We became really close in 1976, at the Innsbruck Olympics,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Don, keep an eye and ear to what’s going on in the lobby. See who’s coming and going, who’s around.’ I came back that later in the day, and Don says, ‘Alan, come here, I want you to meet the president of Austria.’
“He was the perfect lobby-sitter. He could come back and tell me everything that was going on, what everyone’s doing.
“Everybody knows Don would always sign off an email or a letter with ‘God bless.’ Well, God bless Don Johnson. I, and many, many others have lost a dear friend.”
Don Johnson leaves to mourn his wife of 59 years, Flo, sons Peter and Mike and daughter Cathy, along with their spouses and children.
Resting at Carnell’s Funeral Home from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. today and Tuesday. Funeral mass will take place 9:30 Wednesday morning at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church.