Fifty-four years after he last stood in front of the goal cage at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, Johnstown still has a special significance to Ed Johnston.
His time in the Flood City helped Johnston embark on a National Hockey League career that included three Stanley Cup championships, two as a goaltender with the Boston Bruins and one as a senior advisor for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Johnstown was the steppingstone for me getting into the National Hockey League,” said Johnston, who will be inducted into the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night at the Pasquerilla Conference Center. “After winning the Eastern Hockey League championship with the Jets, I went back to Montreal, played one more year and ended up going to Boston.”
Johnston had a 43-18-1 regular-season record while playing 3,779 minutes with the Johnstown Jets in 1959-60. That season, Johnston was an EHL All-Star goaltender who led the Jets to the Eastern Hockey League playoff championship.
“We had all the elements,” Johnston said of the Jets, as he reeled off a list of Johnstown Jets players. “We had toughness. We had some great players.
“We had guys like John Lumley and Danny O’Connor that were tough. Steve Brklacich, our coach, was very competitive and he made us very competitive. Donny Hall was our key. We had Dick Roberge and Kenny Coombes. There were guys like Dave Lucas, Bob Dawes, Jimmy Mikol, Frank Dorrington and Stan Parker.”
Cambria County War Memorial Arena was only a decade old during that championship season.
“The crowds were terrific,” Johnston said. “Charlie Kunkle was our owner, and Johnny Mitchell was our GM. You couldn’t get much better. We had a great following.”
Even though Johnston played only one memorable season in Johnstown, he still was able to name businessmen, fans and even the team’s favorite bartenders at the former Airway Club. He remains a close friend to Hall, who was in the inaugural Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 1965.
Hall will attend Saturday’s induction ceremony.
“Don has been a special guy. We’ve stayed in touch,” Johnston said. “He comes down to our games in Pittsburgh every so often. To have him as a friend, and his wife, Jean, has been a blessing.”
Johnston’s professional career included 22 seasons as a player and 31 years as a coach or part of a management team. He put more than 50 years into the pro game.
The man better known as E.J. in Pittsburgh was a goaltender on Stanley Cup-winning Bruins teams in 1970 and 1972. He took home another ring with the 2009 Penguins in his role as a senior advisor.
Johnston also is the answer to a hockey trivia question. He’s the last NHL goaltender to play every minute of every game in a season, accomplishing the ironman feat with the Boston Bruins in a 70-game season in 1963-64.
As a goaltender, he appeared in 591 NHL games and posted a 236-256-87 record with 32 shutouts.
“When you start off in your career as a player, the No. 1 goal in your life is to win the Stanley Cup,” said Johnston, who resides in Pittsburgh. “To win two in Boston was special. To win one here has been terrific. All three of my kids all have a ring now.
“To be able to win a couple Cups as a player is a dream come true,” he added. “Guys have played a lifetime and never get that opportunity. I’ve been very fortunate. The game has been very good to me.”
Johnston coached the Penguins and served as a general manager in Pittsburgh. Overall, he spent 25 seasons with the Pens.
As a GM, Johnston drafted Mario Lemieux with the first pick of the 1984 NHL Draft, a move credited with saving hockey in Pittsburgh. Lemieux was the star of the Penguins’ 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cup championship teams. As an owner, he helped the franchise emerge from bankruptcy to eventually play in the state-of-the-art Consol Energy Center.
“I had so many great offers,” Johnston said of NHL teams trying to aquire the top pick from Pittsburgh in order to draft Lemieux. “I was fortunate enough to play with (Bobby) Orr in Boston. That type of player, like Lemieux, they come around once in a lifetime. Montreal, Philly, Quebec. They made offers. Minnesota offered me all their draft picks.
“I told Mr. DeBartolo I was not going to trade him,” Johnston said of former Penguins owner Ed DeBartolo Sr. “After the first practice, Mr. DeBartolo came to me and said, ‘I’m so glad you didn’t listen to some of the people here who wanted to trade away that draft pick.’ If we had done that, there would be no hockey in Pittsburgh. I guarantee you.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.