“With his balding head gleaming under the lights,” Deane McGowen wrote in a New York Times obituary in 1979, “the 6-foot, 210-pound Mr. Johnson would carry the puck down the rink like a runaway locomotive at full speed. There were few opponents who dared to impede his progress.”
Nobody called him Mr. Johnson: though first and officially labeled Ivan Wilfred, he was nicknamed early on and certainly as an NHL defenceman was only ever really known as ChingJohnson. Today’s his birthday: he born in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 7, 1897.
Johnson served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, as a driver for the 3rd Division’s ammunition column. The record of his military service testify that he acquired both a social disease and a Good Conduct Badge in France before he was demobilized in 1919.
He played some hockey in Belgium before he came home, after the Armistice, he was among a group of Canadian soldiers who “satisfied their hankering for the blades and sticks with games on a pond in front of a chateau outside Brussels.”
That’s according to Damon Runyon, the writer, of Guys and Dolls repute, who was also a hockey fan and sometime (what else could he be?) Runyonesque hockey columnist in the late 1920s
Johnson had signed on with the New York Rangers by then — was, in fact, one of the long-serving original Rangers, along with Frank Boucher, Bun and Bill Cook, and Murray Murdoch, whose numbers the team has somehow failed to retire. (Johnson’s was 3.)
He played 11 seasons in all with the Rangers, plus an extra one at the end of his career with the Americans across town. The Rangers won two Stanley Cups during Johnson’s tenure. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice, in 1932 and ’33. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.
Here’s Runyon’s perspective on Ching Johnson and his predilection for bodychecks from a 1927 column:
Weighing 211 pounds, splendidly distributed in bone, muscle, and skin of healthy glow, he believes firmly in the efficacy of a hip movement that combines the dexterity of Gilda Gray’s shimmy and the potency of a battering ram. In a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he floored five men — all but the goalie, who cannot be charged on without fracturing a rule — through the medium of his highly educated hip and sheer driving power.