Johnny McKenzie, a forward who was a key cog on the Boston Bruins' Stanley Cup championship teams in 1970 and 1972, died Friday at his Boston-area home after a lengthy illness. He was 80.
McKenzie, nicknamed "Pie," was born Dec. 12, 1937 in High River, Alberta, about 40 miles south of Calgary. He was a rodeo competitor early in his life, earning the nicknames "Cowboy" and "Bronco." Those came before "Pie Face," for his apparent resemblance to a Canadian candy bar's cartoon illustration, which would be shortened to "Pie" for the shape of his face (or his posterior, according to old friend and Bruins teammate Phil Esposito).
McKenzie played with seven junior and minor-pro teams before cracking an NHL roster, playing 28 games in the 1958-59 season with the Chicago Black Hawks (then two words). He played 75 games during the next two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings before being traded back to Chicago, where he played from 1963-65 before he was traded again, this time to the New York Rangers.
McKenzie's big break came on Jan. 10, 1966, at age 28, when he was traded by the Rangers to the Bruins for forward Reggie Fleming.
"It was only then that I started to play hockey," McKenzie told sportswriter Andy O'Brien for his 1973 book "Superstars: Hockey's Greatest Players."
"Some call it maturity, some call it confidence, but I know it meant thinking hockey. Instead of moaning to myself in Detroit while sitting out Ted Lindsay's misconducts, or over my bad luck at being a right-winger on a team with a right-winger named Gordie Howe, I should have been thinking of my own techniques and mistakes.
"When I spent so much time at the end of the bench in Chicago, I should have been studying [Stan] Mikita instead of just watching. With my trade to Boston came the thought, 'If you want to stay up here at 28, Pie, you'd better start figuring out why you don't get more goals.'"
The Bruins sharpened McKenzie's focus by barring him from summer rodeos, He was already playing without a spleen, which had been ruptured during a 1963 game with Chicago and removed with emergency surgery.
McKenzie rediscovered the net-front touch that had won him a major-junior scoring title in 1957-58, when he piled up 99 points (48 goals, 51 assists) for the St. Catharines TeePees. Not that McKenzie played delicately; he had 227 penalty minutes in 52 games that season, his career high in any league.
After scoring 17 goals in 1966-67, his first full season in Boston, McKenzie enjoyed five solid offensive seasons, scoring 28, 29, 29, 31 and 22 goals in that span and playing on two Stanley Cup-winning teams. In 1968-69, his shooting percentage of 23.6 percent was the best in the NHL.
McKenzie was wildly popular with blue-collar Bruins fans, who loved that the 5-foot-9, 170-pound forward played with reckless abandon and bottomless courage, and forever was a thorn in the side of opponents. On the Bruins' pest scale, he was the Brad Marchand of his day.
Early in 1971, in the glow of the Bruins' first championship since 1941, McKenzie was feted at a hotel banquet and showered with gifts, having been voted the Seventh Player Award that went to the team's most unheralded player. He and his family would be week-long guests of honor that summer at the Calgary Stampede, where not so long ago he had been paying a $100 entry fee to compete in calf-roping contests.
If his two Stanley Cup victories topped his career highlights, McKenzie also mourned one that got away: the heavily favored Bruins' stunning 1971 seven-game first-round upset by the Montreal Canadiens.
A leader on a team that featured the likes of Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, as well as linemate Johnny Bucyk on left wing and Fred Stanfield at center, McKenzie scored two goals in that series. But it turned out there was a pretty good reason he didn't have more -- he had been playing with a fractured skull, later revealed by an X-ray, that he'd sustained in Game 1.
"I ran into [Canadiens goalie Ken] Dryden's stick, but he said, 'Excuse me,' so how could I get mad at a nice thief like him?" McKenzie told O'Brien.
He took seven stitches on the bridge of his nose that night and played the rest of the series with his eyes almost swollen shut.
"But it really wasn't much as skull fractures go," McKenzie said with a shrug. "Just a little bone where the nose is hooked onto the forehead. It was unhooked.
"Some commentators blamed my eyes for getting only two goals in the series, but I could see all right. It was that four-story goalkeeper (Dryden) who was responsible. On eight of my 23 shots, I has so sure I'd scored that I wheeled way with arms upraised for the benefit of fans in the rinks, on TV and all the ships at sea, only to find the game continuing."
On the "Big, Bad Bruins" of the day, teammates viewed anything that didn't require traction as a shaving cut.
"When I got that shoulder separation in a game against Toronto in mid-January 1971, I was sitting in agony, stripped to the waist, with a hunk of bone sticking up under the skin of my left shoulder," McKenzie recalled. "When the team came stomping into the room after the first period, Esposito took one look and said, 'You won't be using your extra tickets for a while. Can I have them?' "
Left unprotected by the Bruins in the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft used to stock the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames, McKenzie bolted to become the playing coach of Philadelphia of the fledgling World Hockey Association in 1972-73. He left the NHL with 474 points (206 goals, 268 assists) and 923 penalty minutes in 692 games with Chicago, Detroit and Boston. They were fine totals for a player cast primarily as a checking forward and penalty-killer for much of his career.
McKenzie finished his pro career with seven seasons in the WHA for Philadelphia, Vancouver, Minnesota, Cincinnati and New England. His No. 19 was retired by New England in 1979 upon his own retirement, in the WHA's final year.
McKenzie was at peace in his final days, surrounded by his soulmate, Beth Romanelli, his five daughters from two marriages and many of his grandchildren.
It was long-time friend Bobby Orr, in his 2013 autobiography "Orr: My Story," who had offered soaring praise that McKenzie might have loved best.
"There is nothing worse than having a teammate whom you cannot trust with respect to their level of play. Eventually, that player will be left behind," Orr wrote. "On our old Bruins teams, Pie McKenzie was the same player every night out."