Whether it’s lacing up his skates for some strides on the ice or gearing up for the Barrie Police Service, Greg Johnston understands the importance of teamwork.
The born and bred Barrie boy, and former NHLer, will use that skill set when he gets behind the bench this fall for the Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League's new Collingwood Colts, which will serve as a farm team for the OHL's Barrie Colts.
To say hockey is in his blood would be an understatement.
The 54-year-old still looks like he could take a hit, or give one, but says he understands the value of assessing a situation, whether it’s wearing a police uniform or a team jersey.
While the similarities between hockey and policing might not seem apparent at the offset, sometimes they are, he says from his home in south-end Barrie.
“Hockey gave you that ability to handle stress, because if you can play in a Stanley Cup final series (he’s played in two of them) or if you can play in a Calder Cup final series (in the American Hockey League) or world juniors (where he scored two goals for Canada en route to a gold medal in 1985), if you can handle those things, you can handle stressful situations,” he says.
Hockey isn’t just about putting a puck in the net, however, it is also about camaraderie and building relationships, on and off the ice, he says, adding there are a couple of similarities between the game of hockey and policing.
The 17-year Barrie police veteran understands the need for communication and teamwork, whether he is sporting the badge or barking out suggestions to his on-ice players.
“The (police) service is a team as well. I have thrived and grown up in a team environment,” he says. “In policing, you need the ability to read and react quickly to situations with a level of calmness and de-escalate situations, as opposed to elevating them.
“Policing is stressful, to varying degrees, and at various times you have to be able to handle those things and there’s also the physicality and being able to train and stay in shape,” Johnston says of his 11-year stretch with the tactical support unit.
“We’re training every day; we’re a 12-man team. It’s not hockey, but it is a team. We’ve got each other’s back. We’re always with each other; we practise together and train together,” he says. “Policing ties in that way, where I’ll be able to react to certain situations as well as situations during a game: being flexible and having the ability to adjust.”
Johnston’s feet have never been far from the ice.
In 1981-82 as a Barrie Colts midget, he scored 31 goals and had 46 assists in 42 games. Later that season, he made the Barrie Colts Ontario Junior ‘B’ roster — nine games played, with three goals, three assists — and later drew some attention from one of the biggest hockey franchises in the world.
In the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, he was selected by the Boston Bruins in the second round (42nd overall) and would also later skate with the Toronto Maple Leafs for a few games in the early 1990s.
On a wall in Johnston’s man cave is an action photo — along with Team Canada and Bruins jerseys — of him skating up ice alongside Ray Bourque, the Hall of Fame defenceman for the Boston Bruins (we’ll forget about the other guy just for now), one of the many players he would sidle up next to in the NHL, the AHL or across the pond in Europe’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the German professional ice hockey league.
Johnston's NHL stats include 26 goals and 30 assists in 187 regular-season games, as well as two goals and an assist in 22 playoff games, primarily with the Boston Bruins, led by the likes of Rick Middleton, Cam Neely, Craig Janney and Keith Crowder.
Johnston says he is appreciative of his time with the teams in Boston (parts of seven seasons, including 76 games in 1986-87) and Toronto (four games over parts of two years), as well as their farm systems before heading overseas to play pro hockey in Europe.
Before legendary coach Terry Crisp would lead the Calgary Flames to their only Stanley Cup win in 1989, ‘Crispy’ was coaching the relatively new player from Barrie in the mid-1980s with one of the Bruins’ farm teams, New Brunswick’s Moncton Golden Flames.
Johnston would also play with Boston’s AHL Hershey Bears and later with the baby Leafs, the AHL Newmarket Saints, before they made their leap to St. John’s, NL.
Johnston has fond memories of Crisp.
“He was a screamer,” he says smiling while one of his Bernese dogs hugs the floor at his ankles. “He liked to yell at us. We were a young team. He was coming from junior where he’d had a lot of success.
“He was a knowledgable hockey guy. Crispy and I got along really well. He probably got me on the right track, because that was my first year turning full pro at 20 years old. (But) if you say you get along with your coach all the time in professional hockey, you’d probably be lying.
“I thoroughly enjoyed playing for Crispy, but it (the AHL) wasn’t where I wanted to play. I wanted to be in Boston and that’s where I was trying to get to and he helped me get there.”
Getting to that level of professional hockey is something many skaters aspire to, but don’t necessarily achieve, he says, adding one of his roles in Collingwood will be to nurture young players to their full potential, some hopefully to the OHL and perhaps beyond.
“My job as a coach is to win, but it’s also to develop these kids so they can make the next steps, whatever those steps are and however far they can go,” Johnston says. “We have a number of players who have been drafted to the OHL and their goal is to make that transition but if you’re not playing a high-speed, high-tempo and 200-foot game, then you’re behind the 8-ball.
“My job, and Nick’s, (Nick Ricca, assistant coach) is to get these players to where they want to get to.”
The longtime Colt says Collingwood’s Eddie Bush Memorial Arena is tailormade for junior hockey.
“It’s an old barn, but it’s got class,” he says. “We’re very fortunate. The arena has been upgraded with new seats. We have a new clock (the old clock from the Barrie Molson Centre) so we can have video replays. And Rogers is going to be televising the games. The city is excited to have junior hockey back in Collingwood.
“The junior game is the product, but there is going to be a lot fun around it as well.”
The Collingwood Colts will play a Blue-White exhibition game on Friday, Aug. 23 beginning at 4 p.m. at Eddie Bush arena.