Eddie Johnston: A Coaching Retrospective
Heading into Tuesday’s game against Vancouver, Dan Bylsma was one win away from surpassing Eddie Johnston to become the all-time winningest coach in Penguins history. ‘EJ’ said that day he just knew Bylsma was going to get it that night against the Canucks, and he couldn’t be more proud of him for that.
“I’m happy for him. I think he deserves it,” Johnston said before the game, which the Penguins won 5-4 in a shootout to give Bylsma his 233rd victory behind the bench. “First of all, I want to congratulate him. I’m looking for Danny to surpass me by another hundred or two wins. I think this will be great for the franchise. He’s done a terrific job.
“To have a guy like Danny to break my record, I think it’s perfect for me.”
It’s perfect for Bylsma, too, to break the record of a man who has been so special to this organization for so long and to him personally as a mentor. “To pass Eddie Johnston, he’s a pretty big figure in our dressing room and organization,” Bylsma said following the game. “It’s a milestone.”
Bylsma relied on Johnston for advice and support when he first joined the organization as an assistant coach with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League back in 2006, and still does today.
“’EJ’ came down to Wilkes-Barre and helped us out – oversaw, mentored over the two-and-a-half years I was there from power play to the game,” Bylsma said on Monday. “When I got to Pittsburgh he’s still a factor, coming in, helping out and coaching with power-play situations, game situations, how the team’s playing. There have been times when Mario (Lemieux) has stepped in and said a few words in terms of offering advice and coaching. And EJ has been the same.
“Whether it’s in the playoffs, after a big game, after a big loss, he’s come in with words of calming advice where you might not find them in other places. Last night (Sunday vs. Winnipeg) was no different. EJ was here watching. He came down after the game. I still count on him to give that coaching advice. He’s been there as long as the short time I’ve been here.”
Johnston is a living legend around here. He has done so much for the organization over the last 30-something years in a variety of roles, including general manager, assistant general manager, assistant coach and senior advisor to Ray Shero. But in honor of his record being broken, we’re going to talk about Johnston’s two stints as head coach.
Johnston’s first was from July 15, 1980-July 20, 1983 – where he compiled a 79-126-35 record in 240 games – and his second from June 22, 1993-March 3, 1997, where he compiled a 153-98-25 record. Overall, Johnston’s combined record was 232-224-60 in 516 total games, which still stands as the most games coached. He led his teams to the playoffs in five of his six full seasons.
Hours before Bylsma broke his record, EJ took the time to reflect on some of his most memorable moments from 516 combined games as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins…
* HIS FIRST SEASON
After a couple of seasons coaching in the Chicago Blackhawks organization (one season each with the AHL and NHL teams), the Penguins hired Johnston on July 15, 1980.
That team turned out to be a decent one, with players like Randy Carlyle – who won the only Norris Trophy in franchise history that season while also being named a First-Team All-Star – and Rick Kehoe, who set a then-team record with 55 goals and was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy. But Johnston didn’t have a lot of confidence coming out of training camp, as the struggling Penguins only had 23 guys partake – meaning every participant made the NHL roster.
“Usually when you go to training camp you always have 40-50 guys, so you’re able to scrimmage and get a pretty good assessment of what you have and what you don’t have,” Johnston said. “But unfortunately at my first camp we only had 23 guys and everybody made the team. We were fortunate enough that year we didn’t have too many injuries and we made the playoffs. Which was pretty good. Then we had Randy Carlyle, who won a Norris Trophy here when he was a member of our hockey club. We were blessed with some pretty good talent.”
* A BLEEDING EJ STAYS ON THE BENCH
Johnston played many games without a mask as a goaltender, but probably never dreamed he’d relive those dangerous days as a coach. But he did just that during one of the longest, most eventful games in Penguins history that produced an iconic image of Johnston that all Penguins fans remember.
It was Game 4 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and the Penguins were in Washington to play their rival Capitals. A lot went on in the seemingly never ending contest, including superstar Mario Lemieux getting tossed in the second period after fighting Washington’s Todd Krygier.
Later during overtime, a clearing attempt from Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Zubov glanced off the glass behind the Penguins’ bench and struck Johnston in the head. He began bleeding profusely, but refused to leave the bench – choosing to simply hold a towel over his gushing cut and continue coaching until his Penguins beat the Capitals in the fourth extra period on a Petr Nedved breakway goal. Only then did Johnston finally accept treatment, meeting the media after getting stitched up with blood on his shirt and a large bandage over his left eye.
“That particular game in Washington, it went to (four) overtimes and I ended up getting 17 stitches in the game,” Johnston reflected. “Mario ended up getting thrown out in that particular game. That was probably one of the highlights of my coaching career.”
No one would have faulted him if he had left the bench to get stitched up by trainer Skip Thayer, but Johnston insisted that was never even an option.
“When you’re coaching, you don’t abandon your players,” Johnston said firmly. “When you get that far in overtime, all you’ve got to do is put a little patch on the top of your head and the trainers just put a little Band-Aid on there. I got stitched up after the game. But you don’t abandon the team in that situation there. It was one of those games where everything was involved in that game. Having Mario thrown out of the game, it was ridiculous. To come up and win, and then eventually we won the series, was terrific. That was the start of a pretty good playoff run after that.”
While Johnston’s players certainly appreciated his commitment, they also didn’t miss an opportunity to rib their beloved coach – making their own reference to his playing days.
“They thought I was a little crazy,” Johnston smiled. “When I played goal, my number was 1. A couple of guys said well, now we know what your IQ was to stay on the bench and do that. But it was a fun time.”
* IT’S ABOUT TO BE A COACH FIGHT
Another classic moment happened in the very next game, a 4-1 Penguins win that saw Pittsburgh take a 3-2 lead in the series they went on to clinch in Game 6.
The prior game had been a highly emotional one, and this one was no different – and the coaches weren’t immune. And they nearly came to blows in the waning minutes of the game, as Johnston and then-assistant coach Bryan Trottier believed that Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld was sending players over the boards to target the Penguins’ stars (specifically, they felt Craig Berube was chasing Sergei Zubov).
That infuriated Johnston and Trottier, and resulted in them trying to climb overthe glass to let Schoenfeld know just how displeased they were. The Capitals coach was escorted off the ice by referee Kerry Fraser before it could get physical.
“They were running some of our top guys, got a little emotional,” Johnston said. “I basically sent one of our guys back out to neutralize it. It got a little heated. But you know, that’s part of the game. You see that going on with coaches now, Patrick Roy was involved at the glass the last month or so. When you get competitive, sometimes things get out of hand. But that happened. That’s part of the game.”
* PLAYER TURNED COACH
The common thread in both of those previous situations (Johnston refusing to abandon his players despite being hurt, and then nearly fighting another coach to show his support and protection) is that Johnston proved would do anything for his guys.
He used his own wealth of experience as a player – over 16 seasons and 592 games with Boston (where he won the Stanley Cup in 1970 with teammate and friend Bobby Orr), Toronto, St. Louis and Chicago – to shape his relationships with his guys as a coach.
“The good thing about that was that the players couldn’t fool you because I did all of the things – having a couple of drinks after hours and all that,” he said. “You do those things, so you get a pretty good relationship (in terms of) how far you can go, how far you can push them. That’s where the communication (comes in) and that’s what Danny is very good at, our coach here. He’s terrific that way. It’s very important that you have that kind of rapport with your players. You want to get the most out of them and if you keep just jumping on their backs all the time, sooner or later they’re just going to turn you off. Keep it positive and you’ve got to stay positive with them.”
* POWER-PLAY MIND
A lot of coaches have something in particular they’re known for. Johnston is known for being one of the finest power-play coaches in the game.
During his time with Pittsburgh, he instituted basketball “picks” into his power-play formation. He learned that back in his playing days with Boston through his buddy Tommy Heinsohn, the legendary Celtics player and coach.
“The Celtics were the biggest basketball team back then (and we knew) Tommy Heinsohn and those guys,” Johnston said. “We were over having a few beers with Tommy a few times and they did a lot of picking in basketball as they do today. We sat there and he showed me a little bit and I went over to practice a couple of mornings with the basketball guys to see how they ran the picks.
“And I ran picks all the time in hockey and we broke the record when I was coaching in Chicago, and then I broke my own record three times after that here. But I ran picks all the time. Scotty Bowman was a close friend of mine. He was coaching in Buffalo when I was living in Montreal. He would come to me in the summertime and say, you know when you set those picks? And I would say Scotty, you know we don’t run picks. Guys run into our players all the time (laughs). He would get upset a little bit. But I would run picks all the time.”
Johnston added that Pat Boutette and Terry Ruskowski were his key players in terms of setting picks on the ice.
“They’d be my low guys for picks. They knew the picks right away,” he said.”That means one guy was always open if you ran the picks properly. If you ran them down low or you ran them with the high guys. That was very important. I watch some clubs today and every so often they’ll set picks. The referees let them go. As long as you can camofluage it a little bit like they’re running into you as you’re turning around and blocking them out, that’s the key.”
Johnston has an incredibly sharp hockey mind. And back when he was behind the bench, that was all he had to rely on.
Everything was much different then. Not only were there no computers, Internet, video coaches breaking down footage to look at between periods, iPads on the benches, etc., but he didn’t have anybody in the press box observing the game from that perspective. Johnston was on his own a lot of the time.
“It was difficult at times when games got going and if you had some injuries, to make your adjustments in the course of the game,” Johnston said. “There was no video back then and you didn’t have a coach or somebody upstairs spotting stuff for you between periods and relate and say this is where I think we have to make the adjustments. You had to make the adjustments on the bench and stuff like that. Or between periods you might change, but you didn’t have the luxury of having the video there.
“I think the good thing about now going back looking at coaching when I first came in the league is there was one coach on each team before. The technology between periods with video and that, it’s terrific. If you spot somebody in the course of the game, you can just punch it in between periods. Back when I was coaching by myself, there was no video. If you went to a player and said you did this, he’d say that wasn’t me. You’d have to rethink it (laughs). But now, you say, is that your number up there? So you can point it out to them. They can’t fool you anymore.”
* COACHING SPECIAL PLAYERS…
Johnston coached a lot of special players during his time here. In his first stint, he had guys like Randy Carlyle and Rick Kehoe. Then years after he drafted Mario Lemieux as the Penguins general manager, EJ returned to coach No. 66 and so many other special players including Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, Ulf Samuelsson and Larry Murphy.
Reflecting back on it, what was it like to coach so many amazing talents?
“It was very easy,” Johnston said. “All you did was open and close the door, pat them on the back and say (go). With that kind of talent, you just let them go play.
“Today it’s a little different, especially here now recently in the last couple years with the amount of injuries to our hockey club. It’s just been crazy. With the talent we had, we had Ronnie Francis, Kevin Stevens, ‘Murph’ on defense, Samuelsson. You just had so much talent, so you basically just opened and closed the door for them and just let them out.”