When Canada skated away

Robin
Robin Short
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Don Johnson instrumental getting pros at worlds

Don Johnson watches from the Metro Centre's orange seats here in his hometown as the NHLers comprising the 2008 edition of Team Canada dash about the venerable rink's ice surface.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) turns 100 this year and Canada is staging its birthday party with the world hockey championship in Halifax and Quebec City, the first time Canada has hosted the event.

Don Johnson of St. John's takes in action Sunday at the world hockey championship at the Halifax Metro Centre. Thirty-eight years ago, Johnson was a major force in the effort to get Canadian professionals into the world tournament. Photo by Robin Short/T

Halifax - Don Johnson watches from the Metro Centre's orange seats here in his hometown as the NHLers comprising the 2008 edition of Team Canada dash about the venerable rink's ice surface.

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) turns 100 this year and Canada is staging its birthday party with the world hockey championship in Halifax and Quebec City, the first time Canada has hosted the event.

It's hockey's biggest nugget on the yearly international calendar, and Canada is the game's brightest star.

But the relationship between the Canadians and the rest of the hockey world wasn't always the smoothest. Nearly 40 years ago, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) and IIHF were on a collision course, and it was Johnson from St. John's who was behind the wheel for the CAHA.

Prior to 1977, teams were not permitted to use professionals in the world hockey championship.

At the 1969 IIHF Congress, a provision was approved allowing world championship A pool teams to use nine professionals 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, who was head of the Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association at the time.

"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 says over the phone from Parksville, B.C. "It was at Woolco. I told Don it was God damned near time to let the world know who's boss in hockey.

"The IIHF was run by an Englishman, Bunny Ahearne, who knew nothing about hockey, but knew everything about politics. He had Canada dancing whenever he wanted and the only way to get rid of him was for us to pull out."

"I remember," Johnson says, 'saying to myself, 'It's time. What the hell. Tell the Russians and Ahearne 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 did withdraw and remained on the sidelines for another five years.

During that time, Johnson rose to become head of the CAHA and one of his mandates was to get Canada back into the world championship picture.

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."

Canada re-emerged at the world hockey championship in 1977 in Vienna with a roster full of NHLers, among them Phil and Tony Esposito, Ron Ellis, Rod Gilbert, Jean Pronovost and a young Pierre Larouche, who led the team in scoring with 15 points.

Canada finished fourth, behind the Czechs, Sweden and the Soviets.

rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: International Ice Hockey Federation, Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, IIHF Congress Metro Centre Team Canada International Olympic Committee Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association Woolco

Geographic location: Canada, Halifax, St. John's Quebec City Winnipeg Soviet Union Montreal Newfoundland Toronto Parksville Switzerland Germany Vienna Sweden

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments

Recent comments

  • m
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Don you seem to poke yourself into the Sports news every so often it must be great to have a mutual admiration society around. Give the newsroom a call and they will do a piece on you. Actually it sounds like self admiration and glorification, oh my why do always want to live in the past of self glory????

  • Don
    July 02, 2010 - 13:09

    Dear Robin,

    Thank you so much. You sure get your fact right. I lived through this period and you sure got it right. No wonder I love Newfoundland. God bless. Don

  • m
    July 01, 2010 - 19:45

    Don you seem to poke yourself into the Sports news every so often it must be great to have a mutual admiration society around. Give the newsroom a call and they will do a piece on you. Actually it sounds like self admiration and glorification, oh my why do always want to live in the past of self glory????

  • Don
    July 01, 2010 - 19:44

    Dear Robin,

    Thank you so much. You sure get your fact right. I lived through this period and you sure got it right. No wonder I love Newfoundland. God bless. Don