by Brian Coe || AHL On The Beat Archive
Ed Johnston has been involved with some of historic events during the course of his 46-year career in the National Hockey League. But one stands out above all of them, especially if you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was Johnston who, as general manager of the Penguins in 1984, used the first overall pick in the NHL draft to select Mario Lemieux, thus essentially saving the struggling franchise from relocating or, worse yet, folding.
“That was basically a no-brainer, because he was that good of a hockey player,” Johnston said. “But I had some terrific offers from a lot of hockey clubs [who wanted to trade for the pick]. I think if I would have traded him at that particular time, the Penguins would be a parking lot, the Igloo [Mellon Arena] would be a parking lot. Those type of players come along once in a lifetime.”
Johnston has seen and done it all during his nearly half-century in the game. A Boston Bruins prospect in the early 1960s, he spent 12 years between the pipes for the fabled franchise, winning two Stanley Cups in the process. He was the last NHL goaltender to play every minute of every game in a season, when he suited up in 70 contests with the Bruins in 1963-64.
“Back then there was basically one goalkeeper on each team,” recalled Johnston, who also played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks during his 16 years in the NHL. “But back then you played the whole 70 games, and our backup guy was usually our trainer. So it was a little tougher playing back then, but it was a privilege playing with some of the greatest players of all time.”
And the list of teammates Johnston suited up with is a veritable who’s who of the hockey world. Bobby Orr, Johnny Bucyk, Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Jacques Plante, Dave Keon, Borje Salming, John Davidson and Stan Mikita are just a few of the NHL greats he played alongside.
Johnston was also a member of Team Canada at the 1972 Summit Series, an eight-game exhibition between the top players from the Soviet Union and Canada. This was the most memorable international hockey competition during the Cold War, which the Canadians won with four wins to the Soviet’s three (one tie thrown in).
Johnston’s playing career came to an end after appearing in four games with Chicago in the 1977-78 season. But after coaching the Hawks’ AHL affiliate in New Brunswick in 1978-79, he was back on the Chicago bench, serving as the team’s head coach.
He lasted just one year with Chicago before heading to Pittsburgh, where he guided the Pens on the ice for three years (1980-83) before assuming general manager duties after the death of Baz Bastien.
And one year into the job, he landed the best player the Penguins have ever seen.
“I was fortunate to play with [Bobby] Orr, I coached [Wayne] Gretzky and the players of that caliber,” he said. “When a player like Mario comes along, it was a very easy pick for us. Even though we had some great offers.”
E.J. has seen the Penguins rise from the ashes of the early 80s, hit the heights of the Stanley Cup in the early 90s (even though he was serving as general manager of the Hartford Whalers at the time), fall back to the bottom of the NHL in the early part of this decade, and now is a part of the organization’s ascendancy again. But even though the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are leading the way for Pittsburgh, Johnston is quick to credit the teams in Wilkes-Barre during the past nine seasons for their help as well.
“A lot of the credit’s got to go to Wilkes-Barre, because that’s been basically our training ground,” he said. “Our coaching here, we had [current Pittsburgh head coach] Michel Therrien, and now we have Todd [Richards] and Danny [Bylsma] doing the job. You only succeed if your coaching is very good in the minors. And we’re very fortunate.
“We’ve had Colby Armstrong, we’ve had Ryan Whitney, we’ve had Marc-Andre Fleury that came up here, Max Talbot. And now we’ve got Tyler Kennedy… Alain Nasreddine came up and did a terrific job for us. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve reaped the benefits in Pittsburgh.”
But not only has the on ice instruction been beneficial according to Johnston, but the support in the stands has played a tremendous part as well.
“The fan base here has just been unbelievable. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to that,” he stated. “When the players come to the rink, it’s like playing in the National Hockey League. That’s the benefit we have as opposed to going into some buildings where there’s only two or three thousand. The players know it’s going to be filled every night. This is terrific, not only for Wilkes-Barre, but for our franchise as well.”
While Johnston’s playing career wound down in Chicago, Gilles Meloche got his start with the Blackhawks. Not that his stint in the Windy City was a long one.
Selected by Chicago in the fifth round of the 1970 NHL draft, Meloche suited up for just two games with the Blackhawks in 1971, before being shipped to San Francisco to play for the California Golden Seals.
“For a kid, especially in those years, you didn’t come up in the National Hockey League at 21 years old,” said Meloche, looking back on his early career fortune. “I was lucky enough to be called up by Chicago my first year, played two games with them. I didn’t last too long though, I got traded to California the following year, which was a good omen for me, because Tony Espositio, who is a Hall of Fame goaltender, played the next 15 years in Chicago, so I would have been riding the bench a lot.”
As it was, Meloche appeared in 788 NHL games over his career, which saw stops in California, Cleveland, Minnesota and Pittsburgh. And while the Seals and Barons struggled mightily while Meloche was with them, he experienced his greatest success while in Minnesota and the ‘Burgh.
“We had a young team [with the North Stars] with Bobby Smith, Criag Hartsburg and ended up going to the finals one year , the semi-finals the other year . I played seven good seasons in Minnesota, then finally got traded to Pittsburgh where I finished my career the last three years.
“I was supposed to come to Pittsburgh to play 20 games for one year, and ended up playing 40 for three years under [then head coach] Eddie Johnston. I’ve been lucky ever since then. I took one year off [after retiring] and got rehired in 1989 by Pittsburgh as a scout and goalie coach. And 15 years later I’m still here.”
In his role with the Pens, Meloche, whose son Eric played in Wilkes-Barre from 2000-04, not only keeps an eye on the players in Pittsburgh, but spends considerable time in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he has tutored the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Dany Sabourin, Andy Chiodo and others who have spent time in the NHL over the years.
“To tell you the truth, they are a pleasant surprise,” he said. “Both came from college, and it’s a huge step from college to pro hockey. To come right to the American Hockey League is a great accomplishment in their first years, and they’re both playing very well.
“They have similar styles. Curry will scramble a little more, and that’s what we’re trying to work on, keeping him in front of the net a little more. But they have talent and they’re hard workers.”
Finding a prospect like Curry, who went undrafted out of Boston University, is a credit to the Penguins upper management according to Meloche.
“You’ve got to give credit to Chuck Fletcher and Ray Shero. They really worry about this team, they want good, young prospects,” he said. “They’ll go out of their ways to sign free agents, they want to have a good product here in Wilkes-Barre. Because if you’ve got a winning team in the [AHL], you’ll get a winning team in the National League.”