They say it’s a small world.
Overlay a sport such as hockey, and the world gets smaller still.
Take the Yorkton Terriers at this year’s Royal Bank Cup in Vernon. As the airplane lands in nearby Kelowna the team is met by an RBC ambassador. Each team involved has been assigned one, and in the Terriers case it’s Ed Johnstone.
“I volunteered,” said Johnstone. “I coached the Vernon Lakers (now Vipers) 24 years ago when they won the Cup the first time they hosted it.”
Johnstone was still involved with the Vernon team in 1991, when the Lakers again won. It was the first year the Terriers made it to the RBC, with Dennis Polonich as coach.
And that’s where the world draws tighter in this tale.
Johnstone, like Polonich, is a former National Hockey League player. He played 426 regular season games from the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, scoring 122 goals and having 258 points, and 375 penalty minutes. He also played in 55 playoff games in a career that spanned 1974 to 1987.
But for the 1984-85 season, both Johnstone and Polonich were with the Adirondack Red Wings, Detroit’s American Hockey League affiliate.
“He (Polonich) was a great guy to play with,” said Johnstone. “He was a competitor. He hated to lose just about as much as I did, and that was something.”
While Johnstone could score, he had a 64-goal season in the Western Hockey League with Medicine Hat, Polonich made his way in hockey playing a more physical role.
“He could score a little bit, but that wasn’t really his forte,” said Johnstone.
While playing the game differently, Johnstone said the two players had a common bond.
“We respected each other’s play,” said Johnstone, adding “we never took a shift off.”
While it was rare, Johnstone said, “I think we did play a little bit together (on the same line). I knew if I threw it in his corner he’d get in there and get it, or make something happen.”
Adirondack had a good team that season winning the AHL after Detroit sent down a few key players including Joey Kocur, who of course grew up in Kelvington, yet another connection to the Yorkton area.
“Joey was tough. He could throw them,” said Johnstone with a grin.
Johnstone said in his era fighting made the game different.
“It’s not so much hockey was different, but the players were different,” he said. “You didn’t see as much cheap stuff, the stick work, you see today, because you were accountable for it.”
So what about Johnstone’s career? What were his highlights?
“Just playing in the NHL was pretty special. Everybody told me I’d never do it. That I was too small to play (he was 5-foot-9).
Johnstone’s first goal came on a feed from Pete Stemkowski, beating Toronto netminder Wayne Thomas.
“I went top shelf,” he said, adding “I never got another shift that game. That was the way it was in those days.”
Johnstone also has a tie to one of the greats of Red Wing history, Steve Yzerman. It was 1983, Yzerman’s first.
“My first game in Detroit (after a trade from the Rangers) I was put on a line with Yzerman and John Ogrodnick,” he said. “Yzerman set me up for my first Red Wing goal.”
And Johnstone would later return the favour drawing an assist on Yzerman’s first NHL goal.
“I knew he was good. I’d been around the game awhile. It was just the way he played,” offered Johnstone.
Johnstone made it to one Stanley Cup final as a Ranger, winning game one in Montreal, then losing four straight as Ken Dryden stonewalled the Rangers.
But that was as close as he got to the Holy Grail of hockey. To this day he refuses to touch the Cup.
“I’ve had chances,” he said. “I’ve never touched it, and I won’t touch it.”