Johnny Wilson

Johnny Wilson's 12-year National Hockey League career extended over three decades (1949-62). The left winger broke into the NHL in 1949-50 season with the Detroit Red Wings after playing junior hockey across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario with the Windsor Hettche Spitfires in the International Hockey League.

Wilson played from 1947-49 with the Spits where he compiled 43 points (26G-17A) in 29 games played. After 4 games in the 1948-49 season with Windsor, Wilson was sent to the Omaha Knights of the USHL where he played 70 games that year, scoring 41 goals and 39 assists with 46 penalty minutes.

One of the things that Wilson says helped keep him and his teammates focused on making the NHL during their days with the Spitfires was that he and his teammates would receive passes to go to Olympia on Sunday nights and watched the guys at the big club play. In addition, guys like Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe use to come and watch them play in Windsor. Wilson credits the attention with providing a boost to his professional career.

In the 1949-50 season, Wilson played one game with the Red Wings before being sent to Indianapolis for more experience. He played the remainder of that season and part of the next with the Indy Capitals before making the NHL club. During his time at Indy, Wilson played in 112 games scoring 94 points (59G-35A).

Later in the 51-52 season, Wilson was called up to the Detroit club and played in 28 games. While he only managed 4 goals and 5 assists, Wilson's NHL career started to take off.

Johnny remained a wearer of the Winged Wheel until after the 1954-55 season when he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. This was a familiar trade route for many Detroit and Chicago players as the same family, the Norris', owned both teams. Wilson was part of a 7-man trade that year as he, Tony Leswick, Glen Skov and Benny Woit were sent to the Windy City for Dave Creighton, Bucky Hollingsworth and Jerry Toppazzinni.

Wilson would play 140 games with the Hawks over the next two seasons before being sent back to Detroit in a deal that saw an out of favor Ted Lindsay head for Chicago. Lindsay was being punished for his involvement in attempting to start the NHL Players Union, and team management wanted him out of Detroit.

After another two seasons with the Wings, Wilson was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Barry Cullen. After scoring 31 points in 70 games for the Leafs that year, he was sent to the New York Rangers the next season. After two seasons in New York, Wilson decided that he had had enough.

Wilson stated that New York was a tough place to play because you traveled a lot and didn't have the same luxuries that he had at Detroit and other cities. Since the team leased ice time from Madison Square Gardens, they would practice at another rink, which caused some problems. In addition, the Gardens didn't own the parking lot that they players used and it cost to park for every game. That added to having to cross four tunnels to get downtown and the costs of babysitting, and playing the game was starting to become expensive.

Wilson was able to have the honor of helping to bring along a couple of players to help carry the torch for the Rangers. His final season in the NHL (61-62) marked the first time in a number of years that the Rangers had made the playoffs, and Wilson broke in a couple of young guys named Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert. In that post season, they nearly knocked off Toronto but were eventually eliminated by the Leafs.

Had Wilson remained in the NHL, he could have probably played quite a few more years as, unknown to him at the time, expansion loomed on the horizon. Players that did stick around, like Howe and Alex Delvecchio, were able to almost indefinitely extend their careers.

After being out of the game for a few years, Wilson decided that he missed the ice and took a coaching position with the Detroit Red Wings. Wilson coached 145 games in Detroit over two seasons (71-73), and posted a 67-56-22 record.

Wilson also coached the Michigan Stags franchise, which played in downtown Detroit at Cobo Arena during the 1974-75 season. The Stags had relocated to Detroit from Los Angeles where their moniker was the Sharks. The troubled franchise didn't find the Detroit market to be financially better and they packed up in mid season and headed to Baltimore, where they eventually folded for good.

Following his Michigan-Baltimore experience, Wilson headed to Cleveland where he coached another WHA franchise called the Crusaders. When Johnny got to Cleveland, he found that they were running out of money as well. The team shortly disbanded.

Out of a job, Wilson heard about a NHL team that was moving from Kansas City to Colorado and was looking for a head coach. After making a phone call to Muncie Campbell, Wilson was named the bench boss of the Rockies.

Once his hockey days were all said and done Wilson returned to live in the Detroit area, holding a sales job with a local company. He was also an active member of the Detroit Red Wing Alumni and played numerous charity games each season in and around Michigan.

On December 27th, 2011 Johnny Wilson passed away at the age of 82. He had suffered a long battle with a lung disease.


Sean Madden 6:46 AM  

Hi Joe, great piece on Johnny. I grew up in the Detroit area, and Johnny and my grandfather were friends from his days with the Springfield Indians of the AHL (My GF was director of off-ice officials for the Indians for 30 years). Johnny always had time for us, either with a conversation, handshake or brief story of either my Grandfather or his playing/coaching days. He frequented the rinks in the local area, either in support of his grandkids, or just because he liked being around the rink for most of his retirement. Johnny was a true ambassador of the game, may he rest in peace.

Anonymous,  6:05 AM  

Thank you for this wonderful piece. Johnny Wilson was a great man as well as a great hockey presence. We should add to your piece that he was also the NHL Iron Man for eight seasons, having played 580 games through injuries and illnesses. In his era, he played full games to earn that title. Players who have since broken the record sometimes played parts of games or even one shift to maintain it under injury, which was not allowed in Johnny's time.

He was always a positive force for those who knew him, ever the optimist, exceedingly kind, just a wonderful man!

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