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Article:So Long EJ, and Thanks

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"Mellon Arena would be a parking lot now if not for Mario" - EJ

The end of an era occurred with the retirement (kind of) of a man who has lasted a very long time in the National Hockey League, one Eddie Johnston or otherwise known as EJ.  EJ stepped down last month from his position as Senior Advisor to Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero.  EJ will still be available to Shero for advice and he will also be doing some appearances at corporate and alumni functions so it's not like he's dropping out of hockey for good, but his day-to-day responsibilities will be curtailed. 

EJ grew up in Montreal in an Anglophone part of the city and eventually became a goaltender for the Montreal Junior Royals in the Quebec Junior Hockey League.  Eventually he found his way to the NHL with the Boston Bruins.  He won two Stanley Cups with the Bruins during their Big Bad Bruins days.  Although during the Cup wins he was primarily the backup goalie to standout Gerry Cheevers.  He also was the first roommate of Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.  Perhaps most hockey fans will remember that EJ was the last goaltender to play every minute of every regular season game, a feat accomplished during the 1963-64 season with Bruins. 

After his playing days were over EJ began a distinguished career in management.  He started by coaching the Chicago Blackhawks for the 1979-80 season before moving on to coach the Penguins.  In total he coached 8 seasons in the NHL.  Also on his resume was the position that is currently held by Ray Shero, that of Penguins General Manager.  His most notable move during his GM tenure was the selection of Mario Lemieux first overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft

The 1984 NHL Entry Draft was shown on local television in Pittsburgh, channel 22 the station that showed Penguins hockey at the time if I remember correctly.  There was a great deal of build up in the local media to that draft because of Lemieux.  The Penguins had the first selection so the question was whether or not EJ would trade the pick.  Previous Penguins GMs had the bad habit of trading first round picks for more veteran players.  EJ held firm and made Lemieux the first player selected in that draft.  As I sat there watching the selection being made live on TV I could not help but chuckle as EJ made the selection in French, which in typical EJ fashion, he mangled completely.  Interestingly though after Lemieux was selected he stood up and acknowledged the crowd but then sat back down and did not come down to meet the Penguins brass.  Any fears of Lemieux holding out though went away quickly as he signed with the club and the rest is as they say history. 

After leaving the Penguins GM position EJ went on to handle the same post with the Hartford Whalers.  Even at the helm in Hartford he pulled the trigger on a trade that was instrumental in making the Penguins Stanley Cup Champions in 1991.  EJ traded Ulf Samuelsson, Ron Francis and Grant Jennings to the Penguins for play making center John Cullen and young defenseman Zarley Zalapski

EJ returned as Penguins Head Coach in 1993 and has been with the organization ever since.  A fine student of the game and a great man to pick up on ideas from where ever he could find them he recently explained during a radio interview how he got the Penguins power play to be so lethal during his first coaching stint with the Penguins.  During his time in Boston EJ was discussing tactics with Tom Heinsohn of the Boston Celtics.  He specifically asked how the Celtics ran their offense.  It was during this conversation using whatever was available at the table to pose as player stand-ins that EJ learnt the picks that the Celtics used.  He employed those same type picks with the Penguins thereby elevating their power play to the top of the NHL. 

It was nice for me to see the 73 year old EJ lift the Stanley Cup this past spring as the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings.  When Grandpa Munster (another of his fine nicknames) lifted the Cup I had a tear in my eye.  He has been truly a great servant to the club and I wish him well as he heads into retirement (kind of).

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