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Wings' 4-time Cup winner, Wilson, dies

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Johnny Wilson (center) played with and coached Alex Delvecchio, and coached Nick Libett (right) in Detroit and Pittsburgh. (Photo by Dave Reginek)
DETROIT – Nick Libett will never forget Nov. 2, 1971 – the day after he first met the Red Wings’ new coach, Johnny Wilson, who as a player helped the franchise to four Stanley Cup championships during the 1950s.

That Tuesday practice at Olympia Stadium might have been the most difficult of Libett’s NHL career, but it also left a very lasting impression on him.

“The first game we lost in Toronto, 6-1, and he said, ‘Gentlemen, you’re not in condition,’ ” said Libett, recalling Wilson’s first game after taking over for Doug Barkley. “The next day we came back to Detroit and never had a single puck on the ice.

“It was almost fun – it was a chore – but it was fun and that was Johnny’s style.”

Wilson, who had been battling lung disease and colon cancer for several years, died Tuesday in suburban Detroit. He was 82.

Born in Kincardine, Ontario, Wilson played 12 NHL seasons, including seven with the Wings, and coached another 13 seasons with stops in the American Hockey League, as well as the World Hockey Association.

He is the uncle of Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, and the older brother of Larry Wilson, who played three seasons in Detroit and later was interim head coach, finishing out the 1976-77 season. Larry Wilson died in 1979.

Johnny and Larry Wilson were teammates on the Wings’ Stanley Cup winning team in 1950.

A two-time NHL All-Star, Johnny Wilson was the league’s first true Iron Man as the only player to play in all 70-games in eight consecutive seasons. The left winger eventually played in 688 career games with Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and the New York Rangers and compiled 161 goals and 171 assists.

Under Wilson’s tutelage, Mickey Redmond became the Wings’ first 50-goal scorer, netting 52 goals in the 1973-74 season, and remembers his coach as a fair-minded man.

“If there was discipline to be rendered, John would give you the out saying, ‘Listen, if I can rescind this, let me see how you play tonight,’ ” Redmond recalled. “So he would use things like that as carrots for you to play better and help the team. That’s where he would leave you wiggle room. He never closed the door.

“Johnny always left room for you to dig out of the hole that you might have gotten into. And that’s where the fairness came in, all for the better of you and the hockey team.”

Five years after his playing career ended, Wilson got into coaching when he accepted a minor-league job with the Springfield Kings, the affiliate of the newly formed franchise in Los Angeles. He later took over the LA job, essentially replacing a former Wings teammate, Red Kelly, who coach the Kings’ first two NHL seasons.

Wilson finished the season in LA, and two years later took over in Detroit where he guided the Wings to a 67-56-22 record in less than two full campaigns.

Libett, who also played for Wilson in Pittsburgh, said that his former coach would have been a perfect fit with today’s physically fit athletes.

“Johnny was changing with the times. He was coming out of the old school, but from what I know about his coaching he was willing to get involved with the dietary chances with the players,” Libett said. “He was talking about that back in Pittsburgh with, ‘You’ve got to eat this, and you’ve got to eat that.’ He was on that wave, so today he would have been a really good coach.”

Following the 1972-73 season, Wilson coached the WHA’s Michigan Stags, and a year later took the Cleveland Crusaders to the WHA playoffs.

Wilson returned to the NHL in 1976-77 with the Colorado Rockies, followed by a three-season stint with Pittsburgh where he took the Penguins to back-to-back playoff appearances, including a first-round series win over Boston in 1979.

“He was the same in Pittsburgh,” Libett said. “We had a lot better of a team, and that was the main thing. Johnny was the same with the same coaching mentality and temperament and delivery. He had a great delivery and I think that’s the one thing that I really can say he had. Some guys open their mouths and you know they’re no good. Johnny had a great delivery whether things were going well or not so well. When he got angry, his angry delivery still had some humor in it.”

Redmond added, “John was a very, very light-hearted guy and easy going and always full of humor. For all intense and purposes, one could say that he looked at life from the humorous side. … He kept everything loose and light. That was John to the end.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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