The cramped, bustling pressroom tucked way upstairs in the old Montreal Forum was a Tom Johnson favorite, for the most part because his pal for more than half a century, the noted newspaper scribe Saul "Red" Fisher, was guaranteed to be in there hours before faceoff, especially when the Bruins were in town.
Johnson, 79, who died Wednesday at his home in Falmouth, was ever-loyal to his friends, and equally committed to giving them the business. His loves were his family, hockey, and sitting in hotel lobbies, where in his later years as Bruins assistant general manager he would park himself on a comfy chair or couch, read the ink off the day's newspaper, smoke cigars that would envelop lobbies in billowing plumes of blue haze . . . and silently plot the next victim of his sharp, oft-crippling wit.
"How you doin', kid?" was the standard and boisterous TJ greeting, even if the "kid" might have been a 70-year-old hotel doorman, or the aged owner of his favorite breakfast "joint" in Montreal. "Joint" was also used universally by Johnson. The bar at the Ritz could be a "good joint," as could the hot dog stand at the old Le Colisee, home to the Nordiques in Quebec City. Part of the legendary Habs squads that won five straight Cups in the 1950s, he knew all the joints the league had to offer.
"Kid" covered just about everyone, and you knew you were inching your way up the Johnson totem pole of respect when he began to refer to you only by your last name. To wit: "Dupont . . . you workin' today, or will the Globe be letting [former reporter Fran] Rosa tell its readers what's really going on?"
As stated, you had to inch your way up that totem pole.
The mischievous Johnson gave everyone the business, but his best friends were, without doubt, his favorite and favored targets. That sly cheshire smile that was always on "Tom Cat's" face would mushroom instantly to a belly laugh, with accompanying tears of laughter, if he could gain the slightest edge on his ol' pal Fisher, whom only he referred to as "Saulie."
For the record, most everyone in the world addresses Fisher, who remains an icon in Montreal, as "Red." There are a few who call him "Fish." But for Johnson, it was always "Saulie," no doubt because it was Johnson's way of showing him not the least bit of reverence. This was the man, of course, who opened up his Montreal home to the new Mr. and Mrs. Tom and Doris Johnson on their wedding night long, long ago. Why would anyone, especially Johnson, want to be too kind to him?
Fisher, some 20 years ago, took great glee when a Boston scribe turned to Johnson at a table in that old Forum pressroom and nonchalantly asked, "So, how'd you spend the day in Montreal, Sir Lunch-a-lot?" In fact, Fisher howled, and immediately picked up on it, later offering Johnson, "I wish you a good evening, Sir Lunch-a-lot," as he made his way to the press box to bang out some early copy.
"You liked that, didja, kid?" Johnson said to the Boston reporter, as he left the pressroom. "That's OK. We'll see about Saulie."
Oh, and he saw about Saulie. The next time they met, back in that same Forum pressroom, Johnson pulled a clipping from the Montreal Gazette, Fisher's employer for decades. With Fisher sitting across the table, the devious Johnson painstakingly unfolded the clip, which was, as Fisher was well aware, a poll of Gazette readers, rating their favorite stories in a recent edition of the paper.
"I see this Gazette poll here, Saulie," said Johnson, as earnest as a man could be when relishing sweet triumph. "Looks like you finished out of the money."
Memory fails me slightly here, but Fisher's hockey column rated far down the list, and as Johnson noted, perhaps 100 times in subsequent years, it slotted right behind a story that focused on something like gardening tips for seniors. Next on the poll came Fisher's piece, right below the rhododendrons. Johnson neatly folded up the clip, tucked it away in his sport jacket, and for years would gesture as if he were about to pull it out again every time he saw Fisher.
"Where's that Gazette poll?" he would say, reaching inside his jacket. "I know I've got it here, Saulie."
Raised in Baldur, Manitoba, just outside of Winnipeg, Johnson was unfazed by cold weather, and was rarely, if ever, seen wearing a coat. The corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg is generally acknowledged as being among the coldest spots in the world, and even there, in the dead of winter, he could be seen crossing the street, headed to a favorite "joint" for a late-night Scotch, maybe two, with only an open sport jacket to protect him against the elements.
"We'd be on a two-week trip, and he wouldn't check a bag," recalled Nate Greenberg, the Bruins' former publicist and front-office executive who knew Johnson for nearly 35 years, and talked with him at least once a week, including Tuesday. "He would stuff everything in this little Kappa bag, and that was it, all he needed for two weeks."
On one Bruins sojourn, Greenberg recalled last night, a trip to Edmonton landed Greenberg in Oiler country without his luggage. Not a crisis, really, but Greenberg was committed to be part of the TV 38 telecast back to Boston. What to do? No problem, said Johnson, as he reached into his Kappa bag and pulled out a folded-up camel hair sport jacket that he kept for all occasions.
"The thing was all wrinkled, I mean, just brutal," recalled Greenberg. "But I had no choice, so on I go with it. Now this is almost 25 years ago, and I was just married. I get a call from my wife, Karin, the next day, and she says, 'Nate, what about that coat? It had to be three sizes too big for you, and those wrinkles, horrible. You're not looking too good.' I gave it back to Johnson the next day and said, 'Thanks, but listen, I think you could fit a family of three in this thing.' You know, he didn't care . . . all he said was, 'Is that right, kid?' "
As the decades flipped by, and the game grew more complex in the way it was scouted, coached, managed, even played, Johnson maintained that simplicity was best. He played on all those great Habs Cup teams. He coached the Bruins to their Cup in 1972, which remains their most recent.
And to the end, he believed that most often the best players would win, and he believed it was the coach's job to have the best players on the ice most of the time, and it was a discerning coach who could figure exactly at what moment in a game those players should be played. He learned that under legendary Habs coach Toe Blake.
"Just old nuts-and-bolts coaching," Johnson recalled, musing on Blake's way this past June, when he and five other living members of the Habs' squads that won the five straight Cups met in Ottawa during the Cup finals. "No blackboards, videotapes . . . nothing. Just knowing what players to put out there at what times. Whatever the game, he could tell who could outplay who out there . . . and that's what the game is all about, isn't it?"
Simple sport, hockey. Meant to be played honestly, with ample amounts of hard work and good fun. Tom Johnson left the world this week, having lived all that to the fullest.
Obituary, Page C19 Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.