He was the NHL’s original Iron Man—a man of perfect attendance, whose offices were located in six Taj Mahals of indoor sports venues.
Long before the tentacles of corporate sponsorship wrapped themselves around the naming of stadiums and arenas, the NHL of Johnny Wilson was played in a half dozen barns, each wonderfully devoid of anything remotely corporate in name, though several were botanical.
Chicago Stadium. Maple Leaf Gardens. The Boston Garden. Madison Square Garden. The Forum. Olympia Stadium.
The names of the arenas screamed hockey.
And Wilson screamed hockey by showing up to work everyday—580 consecutive times, to be exact.
This was the Original Six era—14 games played against each of your five opponents, for a 70-game schedule.
It was hockey without helmets, with shoulder pads smaller than those on today’s women’s attire and with cages around the rink, not Plexiglas.
Travel was by train, sometimes on the same cars as your opponent, if the teams were playing a home-and-home set. That made for some interesting commutes.
It was a race to see which would happen faster: players losing their teeth, or their faces being sewn back together.
All the players were Canadian.
The 70 games were scrunched together between mid-October and late-March. There was no two-month run of playoffs. Everything was wrapped up by mid-April, in time for the baseball season to take center stage.
Wilson joined the Red Wings late in the 1949-50 season, a 20-year-old from a town called Kincardine in Ontario. That was another constant—not only were all the players from Canada, they all hailed from towns that you needed a map to find.
Wilson, a left winger, picked a great time to debut in the NHL, because just weeks later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup.
Too young to crack the Red Wings’ talent-rich lineup on a consistent basis, Wilson bounced back and forth between Detroit and the minor leagues until midway through the 1951-52 season, when he got called up yet again.
That’s when he started his streak of 580 consecutive games played. No more minor leagues for him.
Three more Stanley Cups followed (1952, ’54, and ’55), with Wilson popping in the odd goal, and skating up and down his wing, dutifully, every night.
The bottom line was this: Johnny Wilson got called up to the Red Wings in 1951 and didn’t miss a game the rest of the decade, despite a trade to Chicago in 1955 and back to Detroit in 1957.
The original NHL Iron Man.
Johnny wasn’t the only Wilson kid playing in the NHL—he just played in it longer. His brother, Larry, made it with the Red Wings for a time.
Larry also followed his big brother behind the bench as Red Wings coach.
More about that later.
Johnny Wilson died in Metro Detroit on December 27 at age 82, after an illness.
You’d hardly have known it, judging by the shameful under-reporting of his death by the Detroit newspapers.
Wilson was one of those Red Wings alumni who stayed in the area, hung around the team and who was always eager to talk hockey.
I should know.
In fall 2006, I moderated a roundtable discussion about hockey, comparing eras and talking about how the game has evolved since the 1950s.
The panel consisted of Ted Lindsay, Shawn Burr and Johnny Wilson.
Wilson was 77 at the time but he was as sharp as a scalpel, talking hockey and, more importantly, listening.
It was a wonderful hour.
Before we sat down and talked, I told Wilson that I thought he got a screw job, when he was fired as Red Wings coach after less than two seasons in 1973, and right after missing the playoffs by two measly points. I had wanted to tell him that ever since it happened.
He grinned and said, “Darkness with Harkness,” referring to GM Ned Harkness, who rendered Wilson’s ziggy.
About four years after Johnny was canned as Red Wings coach, brother Larry came along and tried coaching the second half of a 16-55-9 year in 1977. Two years after that, Larry dropped dead of a heart attack, at age 49.
You may know Larry’s son—and Johnny’s nephew—Ron Wilson, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Johnny Wilson was a great Red Wing. He wasn’t a prolific scorer; there were plenty of those on the roster. He won no MVP Awards nor had any remarkable seasons, statistically.
But he was there every night, in the lineup, for those 580 consecutive games. He won four Stanley Cups. And he kept himself closely aligned with the Red Wings, being active in the Alumni Association.
Wilson was also a pretty damn good coach who won a championship in the AHL before coaching the Red Wings.
He was a true gentleman who represented the Winged Wheel with class, dignity and respect.
He died on December 27 and his death barely got a sniff from the local fish wrap. Maybe everyone was too giddy about the Lions clinching a playoff spot just days earlier.
It was a shameful example of under-reporting, because Wilson was among the greatest of Red Wings.
As a player, he was as solid—and reliable—as they come. As a coach, he was innovative and settled the team down from the upheaval that existed when he took over.
As an alumnus, Wilson was active, involved and you knew there was a Winged Wheel tattooed on his heart.
He deserved better from the local papers, which should get a game misconduct for virtually ignoring his legacy.