A Life's Story
October 15, 2022
And, Transcona’s first star…
Everyone knew Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame member Jimmy Johnson
By: Geoff Kirbyson
Jimmy Johnson played more than 450 games as a professional hockey player before going into business and then politics — sort of.
“He was the unofficial mayor of Transcona,” says his daughter, Shellie Anderson. “Everybody knew Jimmy.”
The rugged centreman, who suited up for the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Fighting Saints and Indianapolis Racers over a career of more than a decade, embraced the neighbourhood he came to call home. Upon his retirement in 1975, he opened Jim Johnson’s Sports Centre on Pandora Avenue where, hockey season after hockey season, countless kids were outfitted with new equipment. He started his own company, Jim Johnson’s Trucking, and made time to coach thousands of kids at the Roland Michener and East End arenas.
“Everybody remembers going to his sporting goods store for whatever you needed, even if it was just a cup of coffee. He always had a story and time to spend, especially with kids,” Anderson says.
Johnson, who was inducted into the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, was the president of the Transcona Minor Hockey Association and ran a hockey school for many years.
Tom Oakley remembers Johnson as a no-nonsense coach with the Transcona Railers of the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League who had his players’ respect because of his days in The Show.
“I called him the Mr. Hockey of Transcona. We put him on a pedestal. We had the utmost respect for him and once we got to know him, we saw the real person he was and the knowledge and passion he brought to the game. It was second to none,” he says.
Johnson was also old school and didn’t hesitate to bag-skate his players if he didn’t feel they were listening to him.
“One time he told us not to bother bringing our sticks. He told us we wouldn’t need them for the 60-minute practice. Guys were puking on the bench,” he says.
“We were a little thicker-skinned back then. If Jimmy was pissed off at you, you knew it. You didn’t need him to tell you. You respected his word. If he came down on you, you tried harder. We didn’t want to mess up. He brought out the best in us and we had great times with him.”
Johnson certainly had a thick skin. He grew up in Tyndall and could often be seen hitchhiking his way to games in Winnipeg, 50 kilometres away. He played for the Winnipeg Rangers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League as a teenager and made his NHL debut as a member of the New York Rangers when he was 21.
He played eight games in the Original Six era before the NHL doubled in size in 1967, and was selected in the expansion draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. Three years later, he was joined in the City of Brotherly Love by fellow Winnipegger Bill Lesuk.
“Jimmy was a really great teammate,” Lesuk said. “If you were talking after a game or in a general conversation, he’d never complain about the situation he was in or talk negatively about any player.
“He always had a smile on his face, he always had something positive to say and he enjoyed a good laugh.”
Lesuk, who played the last five years of his career with the Jets of the WHA and NHL, remembers Johnson as a good passer who was very strong on his skates.
“You could never knock him off his feet. I don’t know if he ever got knocked down,” he said.
Johnson’s enjoyment of his teammates didn’t end when the last drill was done, either.
“Everybody had better stop in and have a couple of beers after practice with Jimmy. Sometimes people extended their stay. I had a young family so I usually exited quite early, while a number of others would stay a little longer,” Lesuk says.
Lesuk and Johnson skated with Serge Bernier — the LBJ line — for a season-and-a-half before being packaged together in a blockbuster eight-player deal with defencemen Larry Brown and sent to the Los Angeles Kings for another trio of forwards, Bill Flett, Eddie Joyal and Ross Lonsberry plus defenceman Jean Potvin.
But he didn’t stay in Tinseltown for very long. Johnson was part of the first wave of NHL players to take a leap of faith and jump to the WHA in 1972, suiting up for the Minnesota Fighting Saints. He scored the first goal in the team’s history and played two-and-a-half years there before finishing the 1974-75 season with the Indianapolis Racers and hanging up his blades.
Johnson won the Nick Hill trophy as coach of the year in the Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League while behind the bench for the Transcona Railers in 1983-84.
While Johnson was often content to stand at centre ice with his whistle in his mouth, Oakley remembers him jumping into a drill one day.
“He picked up the puck and when he got to centre ice, screamed out: ‘top corner!’ When he hit the blue line, he blasted a shot right where he said he would. The goalie didn’t even move, and he knew it was coming. We thought, ‘Man, the difference between an NHL player and us is night and day,’” Oakley says.
In his later years, Johnson could often be seen at East End Arena watching his grandchildren play. If you were seated in the stands anywhere near him, you were likely the recipient of some valuable hockey advice, whether you asked for it or not.
Johnson, who died in May 2021 at age 78, is survived by his wife, Marlys, his children Shellie (Jim) Anderson, Jay (Deanna) Johnson and Tara (Greg) Smith, and his grandchildren, Owen and Aubrey, as well as extended family in California.
He was predeceased by his son Kyle in a tragic accident in 2000 at the age of 19. Johnson dedicated the rest of his life to preserving Kyle’s memory and ran a golf tournament in his honour at the Transcona Golf Course every summer.
A memorial service was held for Johnson in August at Joe’s Garage.
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