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Former Habs star and Hockey Hall of Famer Tom Johnson dies at age 79

NHL.com @NHL

Tom Johnson did it all in his five decades in the National Hockey League.

Johnson won six Stanley Cups as a Hall of Fame defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens from 1947-48 to 1964-65, then won two more with the Boston Bruins - as assistant general manager in 1970 and as head coach of the Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito-led Bruins of 1972.

But Johnson, who died Wednesday of heart failure at 79 at his home in Falmouth, Mass., was mostly remembered Thursday for his loyalty to friends and colleagues and for his quick wit, not to mention his ever-present cigar and his colourful bow ties, which he took great pride in tying himself rather than wearing clip-ons.

"If we are all allowed an ultimate friend, mentor, confidant and teacher, Tom Johnson was all of those to me," said Harry Sinden, the long-time Bruins executive who worked with Johnson for 30 years. "The Bruins and all of hockey have lost a great person."

Johnson was part of the greatest dynasty in NHL history, the Canadiens team that won five straight Cups from 1956 to '60, skating mostly on a blue-line pair with Jean-Guy Talbot.

That duo got together with some former teammates for a tribute during the Stanley Cup final last spring in Ottawa.

"Jean-Guy used to keep records," Johnson recalled at the reunion. "He told me we went 23 games without a goal being scored against us one time, but I think the goaltender (Jacques Plante) had something to do with that."

Johnson was awarded the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman in 1959, which he said with a smile was the season he got to play on the power play because another Hall of Famer, Doug Harvey, was injured.

Dickie Moore, a Canadiens scoring star of that era, lamented that only five players remain among those who played on all five straight Cup winners - himself, Talbot, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Don Marshall.

"He'll be missed," Moore said. "We had a lot of fun together.

"He had a hell of a life in hockey."

Broadcaster Don Cherry, a former Bruins coach, said he was surprised because he saw Johnson during the playoffs last spring and "he looked like a million bucks.

"Tom Johnson did it all," Cherry added. "He played and won six Stanley Cups, he coached Stanley Cups, he won a Norris Trophy, he's in the Hall of Fame - what else can you do in hockey?"

The Baldur, Man., native played the last two of his 17 NHL seasons with Boston, and after he was forced into retirement with a leg injury in 1965, spent the rest of his working career there until his retirement in 1998. Still, he continued to attend nearly every Bruins home game, watching from team owner Jeremy Jacobs' private box.

He was at a game only last week, said long-time colleague and friend Nate Greenberg.

"He certainly was a character," said Greenberg. "He loved to exchange barbs with people.

"He loved the give and take. But he had a lot of wonderful qualities, especially loyalty. If you were a friend of Tom, you were a friend for life."

For decades, Greenberg, Johnson and Sinden were a fixture in the Bruins' travelling entourage, which made frequent trips to Montreal for NHL drafts and both regular season and playoff games.

"Even 30 years after he played there, people would see him on the street and say 'hey Tom."' said Greenberg. "He always had something to say to them.

"He was a throwback, a classic."

Greenberg said Sinden relied on Johnson mostly for his eye for hockey talent and mixed scouting into his other front-office duties.

But when called in to be head coach, he led the talent-rich Bruins to their best winning percentage - .738 - in team history.

"He was the perfect coach for that team," added Greenberg. "They were veteran guys. They didn't need a schoolteacher. They needed a guy who would let them do their thing, within reason."

Retired Bruins scout Bob Tindale remembered a favourite travelling companion who was "always with an expense account" and who always remembered to treat hotel staff, cab drivers and others well.

"I started in 1973 with the Bruins and he was one of the first guys I met," said Tindale. "He was a Hall of Famer and a great player, but he always treated me like an equal. He was a lot of fun."

Johnson leaves his wife Doris and children Tommy and Julie. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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