Former Hershey Bears’ defenseman Jay Johnston is a native of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a working class city that has seen its fair share of ups and downs over the years but has overcome adversity to return to a stable state today.
Called the “Hammer” by some, Hamilton is also known for its manufacturing and the 5’11” 190-pound Johnston, who could “hammer” an opponent into the boards with the best of them and manufactured a solid nine-year career largely because of hard work on the ice, is also hoping to rebound after some recent medical setbacks.
“I remember him as a defenseman who played bigger than he was because of the way he would take a guy into the boards,” said Don Scott, the longtime PA voice of the Bears at HERSHEYPARK Arena and Giant Center who also hosted the post-game “Hockey Corner” interview for WAHT Radio in Lebanon during Johnston’s days in Hershey.
Johnston’s first glimpse of the HERSHEYPARK Arena was in 1978 when, after being drafted by the Washington Capitals in the 5th round of the NHL Amateur Draft, he attended training camp there. At first glimpse of the barn that could accommodate slightly more than 8,000 patrons on a sellout night, he was slightly taken aback.
“The first time is saw it, my thoughts were that it was a lot bigger than junior rinks,” remembered Johnston. “I was only there for a short time because I got sent to Port Huron (Flags) that year, but the next year I came back. The arena was located in the middle of an amusement park, which was neat. The thing I remember the most was watching the game. There wasn’t a bad sight-line anywhere, and the view from the upper right corner in the visitors end, you couldn’t beat.”
“It’s nothing like the Giant Center, because I’ve toured that; these guys today have no idea how good they’ve got it. It was built in the 30’s so at that time it was 50 years old. I really enjoyed it. I’ve got many fond memories of sitting on the right side of the bench on the home side. It was convenient for defensemen because you step right onto the blueline. There were some strange things like the home team and away team would come onto the ice through the same entrance, and the dressing rooms were right beside each other. Sometimes that led to a few altercations in the hallway.”
After spending his entire rookie season with the Flags, Johnston joined the Bears the next season, and the club stumbled out of the gate going 6-7-1 in 14 games under rookie head coach Gary Green, but the parent Caps fared even worst.
Washington, under head coach Dan Belisle, registered only four victories in 16 outings, and Green was summoned to the nation’s capital to take over the coaching reigns. With Green’s move up, the Bears elected to make Doug Gibson, a seventh year pro who was already on their roster, a player-coach for the rest of the season. According to Johnston, the coaching shuffle did not cause much of a disruption for the club that eventually captured the Calder Cup that season.
“There were a lot of young guys on that club—Lou Franceschetti, Harvie Pocza, myself, and Greg Theberge—but we had a lot of older guys, too. When Gary Green went up to Washington, he had a half season of experience in the pro level and Washington wasn’t that good either, but he went up there and cleaned house. We had gotten Bobby Girard and Gibby was already down there, and we also got Ronnie Lalonde, and Eddy Godin. Those guys especially don’t have a real fond memory of Gary Green,” said Johnston.
“That was probably the most close-knit team I’ve ever been on. After practice every day, the guys would go to lunch together, and sometimes we would go out at night together, and the same thing happened on the road. Gibby was a player/coach, so he still understood what it took to play, but at the same time, my God, he worked your butt off in practice. They talk about bag skates nowadays, but we got those everyday. We just had a reunion of that team in 2010, and out of the 22 guys on the team, I think 16 showed up. It was the same night the Bears were getting their Calder Cup rings from the previous year, and they had us present them. They really treated us well.”
In that rookie season, Johnston gained valuable personal experience on the ice, but he also absorbed all of the knowledge that he could from the vast array of veteran skaters that the Capitals, along with Hershey GM Frank Mathers, had inked.
“That first-year guys like Claude Noel and defensemen Ray McKay, Roger Lemelin, Mike Haworth (a helicopter pilot, who passed away in a crash in 2008), Theberge, and Bob Bilodeau who was our captain were all instrumental (in his development). Thergy and I had a good chemistry, because I could stand the guy up at the blueline and he had the wheels to go back and get the puck. We sure didn’t want it the other way around,” Johnston laughed.
Another of Johnston’s teammates on the championship club was goaltender Dave Parro, who shared the Bears’ playoff crease that season with Gary Inness. Parro, who won five of eight post-season decisions, still resides in the Hershey area and serves as the President of the Bears’ Alumni Association.
“I played with Jay for four years and lived with him for almost two years,” explained Parro. “He was a hard-nosed defenseman and would stick his nose in wherever he had to to protect his players. Funny story is, we lived in the old Simmons Motel in Hershey my first year, and we were making a road trip, and we had this one guy, John Christopher who we called ‘Midnight’. He was supposed to come take care of Jay’s two sheep dogs. We had a small apartment and we had a Christmas tree put up. We came back and John forgot to take the dogs out, so there was a big puddle right in the middle of the kitchen floor. Jay’s a great guy and was a fierce competitor.”
The next season playing for new Hershey coach Bryan Murray, who would later in his career also ascend to become the Caps’ bench boss, Johnston playing in 61 matches and also earned his first NHL recall. He made his NHL debut against the Calgary Flames in Calgary on February 5, 1981, and despite being in an unfamiliar environment in the Saddledome, he found a familiar bull to buck with when he dropped the gloves with Willi Plett (over 2,500 NHL PIM’s in his career).
“That was my first game, and I didn’t play much in the first period, and Gary Green was the coach. Later on in the game, I got a shift and I knew Willi from playing lacrosse here in Ontario, so I knew what I was getting into. I just kind of jabbed him in the back of the leg and he came at me. I thought I’d better step up to the plate, otherwise I’m not gonna be back tomorrow. I survived.”
Johnson returned to the NHL for six games with the Capitals the next season, but despite his best efforts on the ice and Mathers’ behind the scenes, that was the last time he saw any action in the “show” during his career.
“Frank was the one guy who was pushing for me to go to the NHL, because I know he talked to Philadelphia a number of times (about a trade) because he saw that I was hitting a dead end with Washington. He was a great, fair man,” said Johnston.
While he was all business on the ice, Johnston did occasionally find time for fun away from the rink, including one incident in New England where he and former Bears’ trainer, Bobby Trenn had a “moving” experience.
“We were in Portland, Maine one night.” said Trenn. “After the game we went out afterwards, and he and I ended up being the last two closing up the premises that night. We were walking back to the hotel, and there was an old MG (a small British sports car) sitting outside on the curb, and we decided to left the car up--first the back end, then the front end, and so forth—we lifted it up to the door of the bar and took off.”
In the days that Johnston patrolled the Bears’ blueline, intimidation and fighting were much more prevalent than they are in today’s games, and Johnston’s memories of those days and opponents include the Baltimore Skipjacks and Bennett Wolf whom he called “scary”, but he also singled out two other members of the AHL’s Southern Division as being particularly tough to battle.
“I remember some of the intense battles we had with the Adirondack Red Wings on more than one occasion there. You knew you had to be ready and knew you had been in a real hockey game afterwards; not just fights, but intense hitting on both sides. When you had the puck, regardless of where you were on the ice, you knew you were going to pay a price.”
“Also, playing against the Binghamton Whalers was always a rough game. They had guys like Randy MacGregor, Paul Crowley and Randy Gilhen, all great guys and years later we had many chats about the old days. In fact, I went on to play with Randy (Gilhen) in Ft. Wayne and he was one of my best teammates, but it turns out that I had more fights against him in my career than anyone else. He went on to play for the old Winnipeg Jets and the Pittsburgh Penguins, but wasn’t a fighter; he could play and really had a lot of guts.”
After leaving the Bears/Caps after the 1983-84 season, Johnston played three seasons for the Ft. Wayne Komets before hanging up the skates and venturing into the next phase of his life, which has contained a whirlwind of challenges.
“After I played for the Komets, I retired and moved to Connecticut and worked for an electrical supply company there; I was an inventory manager. Then I came back and coached for two years in the OHL, then I moved to Indiana where I worked for a company called United Rentals. I was the branch manager there. My dad died in 2006, so I’m an only child, and my mother was 81 at the time, so I moved back to Hamilton to make sure I could look after her.”
As one who often saw Johnston perform with the Bears, the two words that I would use to sum up his playing career are dependable and durable (he played in 67 or more games in seven of his eight full seasons and played in 70 or more games in four campaigns), and when I asked him to sum up his days as a player, he offered up a humble assessment of himself.
“I didn’t miss too many games, but there were times just because of the style I played, you were bound to get hurt at one time or another. I wasn’t a star player, but from time to time, I got player of the game and it wasn’t because I scored very many goals, that’s for sure. Also, make sure to mention that Hershey fans were the best fans that I ever had the pleasure to perform in front of.”
Since returning to Hamilton, Johnston has been employed by Hertz Equipment Rental, but he is currently out on disability after suffering three strokes in less than year; yet somehow, possibly in part due to his days battling as a Bear, his fighting spirit still shines through.
“Hopefully this will end soon, but don't worry. I'm a fighter, whether you're throwin' ‘em or battling something else. I'm still walking and talking, and I actually am still able to get to the rink and instruct young kids. Can't beat that!”
If you are interested in dropping Jay a note, he would be happy to hear from you. He can be reached at JayJohnston1958@gmail.com.