OTTAWA, Ont. – Fortunate is the person who is a patron to a hockey tournament. He gets to go to the games, meets the people organizing the event and relishes in the communal qualities that make the game so great.
In Ottawa for the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, the pleasurable role of patron goes to Canada’s governor general and his wife, David and Sharon Johnston.
“The initiative to be patron came from Hockey Canada,” His Excellency recalled Thursday afternoon at Rideau Hall, during a special reception for the organizers and team leaders of the eight nations.
“I suspect that initiative was prompted in part by virtue of the very unusual interest other governors-general have had in the game of hockey. Lord and Lady Dufferin built the first skating rink in North America. And, of course, Lord Stanley gave us the Cup almost 125 years ago. There are several points of intersection that bring Rideau Hall into hockey, and, of course, I love the game, so it was natural for me to make the connection. It was a decision of passion, an easy decision.”
Additionally, the Clarkson Cup, awarded annually to the championship-winning team of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, is named after former Governor General Canada Adrienne Clarkson, who most recently presented “the Stanley Cup of women’s hockey” to the Boston Blades just last month.
For Johnston, his hockey passion started when he was a boy growing up in Ontario and continued to grow as he moved on in life. His career, his family and his personality all reflect a love for the game that is as genuine as a Bobby Hull slap shot.
“I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie,” Mr. Johnston began, “and you learn to skate before you learn to walk. My best memory was from the last year I was there. I played on an under-17 team that won the Northern Ontario championship. We lost the first three games of a best-of-seven in Timmins and won the next four at home in Sault Ste. Marie. Two of my teammates were Phil and Tony Esposito, and Tony was the backup goaltender. The backup, you ask? Well, Tony was about 13 years old on an under-17 team! The other outstanding player was Lou Nanne, who went on to play with the Minnesota North Stars. That was a great memory.”
From the Great White North to Harvard University, Johnston gathered his equipment and began the next phase of his life, hockey being his constant companion. He played for four years starting in 1959 under coach Cooney Weiland, Boston Bruins legend and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was good enough that a career in the pro ranks was not out of the question.
“I did (consider a pro career),” he confessed. “I was 150 pounds at Harvard. I played defence, and I was in the hospital the last two weeks of my final season with mononucleosis, but I had been invited to the Bruins training camp. This was before the draft, and there were only six teams in the NHL. I think if I had been healthier, stronger, and played when there were 30 teams, not six, I probably would have told myself to go. But, I had a scholarship opportunity in Cambridge, England to study law, and the law called me.”
An erudite observer of the game, Johnston was a skilled player, no doubt, but he understood the game with Drydenian detail.
“I played forward and defence, and at one point I even played goal,” Johnston explained. “The thing I enjoyed most about hockey was seeing the whole ice and being able to see how individual virtuosity works into overall plan. I loved the strategy and the on-the-go intelligence of the game. I love the intensity. It’s played at such speed that you simply cannot skate for more than a minute or so without requiring relief. Very few sports have the same intensity that you need wave upon wave of players to maintain that intensity.”
Once the future Governor General settled into a career in law, he married the love of his life and had a full line’s-worth of children – all girls! Yet that did not deter His Excellency from passing down his love for the puck game, albeit belatedly, to his five daughters.
“We were a skiing family because we lived in Montreal, and we had a skiing place in Mont Tremblant, just north,” he started. “The girls skated, but they didn’t play hockey, per se, until they got to College Brebeuf, where they had their own rink. They discovered a great love for it and asked me why they hadn’t played earlier. Well, they were too busy skiing. But, they all played.”
And then began an impressive recitation from the Governor General, calling his family roster of hockey-playing girls with Foster Hewitt’s grace: “Our number one daughter, Debbie, currently plays in a women’s league in Chelsea. Our number two daughter, Alex, who lives in Toronto, played intramural hockey at McGill for the law team. Our number three daughter followed me to Harvard and played on the women’s team, and then she followed me to Cambridge where she was captain of the women’s hockey team. She also coached their team. Our number four daughter, Jen, is expecting her second baby right now but when that baby is delivered she’ll go back to playing hockey. Number five daughter, Sam, also went to Harvard and now plays pickup hockey.”
From Northern Ontario to university, from young man to father – hockey and Johnston have long gone in the same sentence. Anybody wonder now why Rideau Hall is playing patron to this year’s world championship?
“I loved the game as a kid, and we have five daughters, all of whom played the game. And we have nine grandchildren, and they play the game as well,” Johnston concluded. Nothing left to say.