THE JOHNNY WILSON FILE:
Born: June 14, 1929; Died: December 27, 2011
Position: Left wing
NHL games played: 688 (379 with Red Wings)
1954-55 stats (Detroit): 70 GP; G: 12; A: 15; PIM: 14
CAREER: GP: 688; G: 161; A: 171; PIM: 190
In the 1950s, three things were certain: death, taxes and Johnny Wilson in the lineup.
Between 1951 and 1960, Wilson, a left winger, played in 580 consecutive games, including eight straight, complete 70-game seasons.
Five of those complete seasons came with the Red Wings, for whom Wilson played from 1949-55 and again from 1957-59.
In between, Wilson was traded to Chicago after the 1954-55 season, part of an eight-player mega-deal. He returned to the Motor City in 1957 in the famous trade that sent Ted Lindsay to the Black Hawks. Wilson finished his career with Toronto (1959-61) and New York (1961-62).
Wilson, an Ontario native, was not only known for his longevity—he was the NHL’s first “Iron Man”—he was also respected as a steady two-way player who skated up and down his wing and who was a good teammate. Wilson also managed to stay out of the penalty box, which made him an ideal penalty killer. In his 688-game, 13-year career, Wilson was whistled for just 190 penalty minutes.
Wilson, like so many of his brethren, got into coaching after retiring as a player in 1962. He started in the minor leagues, and after a stint as interim coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, Wilson won the AHL’s Calder Cup with Springfield in 1970-71.
Wilson returned to Detroit in November, 1971, being named head coach of the Red Wings after the resignation of Doug Barkley. Wilson’s Red Wings barely missed the playoffs in both 1972 and 1973, but despite an overall record of 67-56-22 in Detroit, Wilson got the ziggy from embattled GM Ned Harkness.
But you couldn’t take Wilson out of Detroit. In the summer of 1974, Wilson was hired to be the coach of the new Michigan Stags of the World Hockey Association. The Stags, who played their home games at Cobo Arena, didn’t survive their maiden season and the franchise moved to Baltimore mid-season.
Wilson’s NHL coaching resume also includes stops in Colorado and Pittsburgh, where his Penguins qualified for the playoffs in 1979 and 1980.
Wilson remained closely attached to the Red Wings in his post-coaching retirement, being active with the Alumni Association and participating in banner-raising ceremonies following Stanley Cups won by the Red Wings in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.
Wilson won four Cups with the Red Wings as a player.
Trivia: Johnny Wilson was the uncle of NHL coach Ron Wilson, whose dad (and Johnny’s brother) Larry also played for and coached the Red Wings. Sadly, Larry Wilson died of a massive heart attack while jogging in 1979. He was only 48 years old.
Author’s note: I had the good fortune, in my capacity as editor of a Detroit sports magazine in 2006, to moderate a hockey roundtable at Joe Louis Arena that included Johnny Wilson, Ted Lindsay and Shawn Burr. We discussed how the game has evolved over the years and the magazine published the entire conversation. As you can imagine, the experience was quite remarkable!
Next week: RW/D Benny Woit, who at age 87 is among the oldest surviving former Red Wings.