But Johnston’s most memorable moment with the Penguins organization was when he saved the franchise.
“The thing I’ll remember most was making the decision to keep Mario,” Johnston said. “The franchise wouldn’t be here if I had let him go. He was the one that got people back in the stands. That, I thought, was the turning point for our franchise.”
If Mario Lemieux had never become a Penguin, the team may not be in Pittsburgh right now. Lemieux saved the franchise twice (once with his play and once as owner). But Johnston was the man who drafted Lemieux with the first-overall pick in the 1984.
Johnston’s phone was flooded with calls from general managers that were trying to acquire that top pick to snatch Lemieux. Montreal and Quebec both pushed hard for the pick and Minnesota’s Lou Nanne offered Johnston every pick the North Stars’ had in the 1984 draft.
“It was absolutely crazy,” Johnston said. “Some people in the organization wanted us to trade that pick and get two or three players in return. I had some pretty good offers but I was emphatic that I wouldn’t trade our pick. It worked out well. He’s been our savior a couple of times.”
The Penguins honored Johnston, affectionately known as “EJ,” for his 25 years of service with the organization prior to their 6-4 victory over the Boston Bruins, the team Johnston broke into the NHL with, Sunday afternoon.
“It’s been enjoyable,” Johnston said. “This franchise has been terrific to me. I’ve been blessed.”
Johnston, who broke into the league in 1962, won two Stanley Cups during his 16-year NHL career as a goaltender. He played for Boston, Toronto, St. Louis and Chicago, and is the last netminder to play every minute of a season when he started all 70 games for Boston in the 1963-64 campaign.
The thing I’ll remember most was making the decision to keep Mario. The franchise wouldn’t be here if I had let him go. He was the one that got people back in the stands. That, I thought, was the turning point for our franchise. - Ed Johnston
Johnston’s tenure in Pittsburgh began in 1980 on the heels of an unexpected firing. He just completed his first-ever season as an NHL head coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. The team went 34-27-19 for 87 points and won the Smythe Division title. Chicago swept St. Louis in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to Buffalo.
“When I coached in Chicago, we went from last to first place,” Johnston said. “Buffalo knocked us out but two of those games went to overtime. Then (Blackhawks owner Bill) Wirtz said ‘EJ has a lifetime contract.’”
Apparently a lifetime in Chicago is less than one day. Johnston boarded a flight to attend that year’s draft. When he landed the media asked him about the coaching change. ‘What coaching change?’ was his reaction.
That’s when the press informed him that Chicago named Keith Magnuson as the team’s new head coach, and Johnston went from a lifetime contract to unemployed.
“I found out through the media,” Johnston said. “I went from a lifetime contract on Monday to no team on Wednesday. That summer I was in San Francisco and got a phone call from Eddie DeBartolo about the coaching job with Pittsburgh.”
Edward DeBartolo purchased the Penguins in 1981 and he wanted Johnston to be the club’s new head coach. Thus began his wonderful career in Pittsburgh.
“When I first came as the head coach in training camp we had 23 players and they all made the team,” Johnston said. “We made the playoffs. That was a pretty good accomplishment at that time.”
After three seasons coaching the Penguins, Johnston became the general manager and put together the core of a Stanley Cup championship team by adding Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens, Mark Recchi and Rob Brown.
After nine years with the Penguins, Johnston became the general manager of the Hartford Whalers from 1989 to 1992. He returned to his beloved organization when Craig Patrick offered him the head coaching position in 1993, and he’s been in Pittsburgh ever since.
I got a call from Craig Patrick. He asked if I was willing to coach the Penguins. The talent they had here was phenomenal. They already won a couple of Cups. It was an easy decision...I just let them play and enjoy themselves.” - Ed Johnston
“I got a call from Craig Patrick,” Johnston said. “He asked if I was willing to coach the Penguins. The talent they had here was phenomenal. They already won a couple of Cups. It was an easy decision. We had Lemieux, Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, (Larry) Murphy, (Jaromir) Jagr. It was an unbelievable amount of talent. I just let them play and enjoy themselves.”
Johnston’s most memorable postseason was in 1996. While behind the bench in Pittsburgh’s series against Washington, he was struck in the head with a puck – a common occurrence in his maskless playing days. A bleeding Johnston remained behind the bench to coach the team. That was also the year he led Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Johnston was relieved as head coach in 1997 but is still the franchise’s leader in games coached (516) and wins (232). He briefly served as an assistant coach when the Penguins hired Herb Brooks in the 1999-2000 season.
Of all the roles he’s had in the NHL – whether player, coach, or general manager – Johnston enjoyed his time behind the bench the most.
“The coaching because you saw good, young players make the team and see their progression,” Johnston said. “Their development is rewarding.”
Johnston served as the team’s assistant general manager from 1997 until 2006. During that time, Johnston helped the Penguins acquire such players as Sidney Crosby
, Evgeni Malkin
, Marc-Andre Fleury
, Jordan Staal
, Brooks Orpik
and Sergei Gonchar.
“This is the most blessed city in hockey,” Johnston said. “We’ve had the best player every year for the last 20 years. It was Mario and then Jagr. Then Mario came back and now we have Sidney Crosby
, Malkin and Staal. We have a young, talented group. It’s great to be around those kids.”
However, this will be the last year that Johnston handles such a heavy work load for the team. Next season he will have a reduced role with the organization but he will still be a presence in the organization.
“I won’t be doing all the day-to-day duties but I’ll still be around,” Johnston said. “I’ll still do things for the community and still be a part of the organization. It’ll just be a different part.”
Still, Johnston has cherished his time with his adopted home, Pittsburgh, and he’ll be forever grateful to the man who stuck by him throughout his tenure.
“A lot of credit has to go to Craig Patrick, thank God for him, for bringing me back,” Johnston said. “I wouldn’t be here without him. I’ve had so many great experiences here and he’s been a huge part of that. It doesn’t happen in our game that often that you stay with a team for 25 years. There’s no question this feels like home.”