johnny peirson, 1925—2021

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera against a background of trousers and underwear in the Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

He described himself as an “above-average not-great player,” but maybe flag that for excess of modesty, because Johnny Peirson was a very proficient goalscorer in the 11 seasons he played the right wing for the Boston Bruins between 1946 and 1958, scoring 20 goals in four of those campaigns, and finishing among the NHL’s top ten scorers three times. 

Peirson, who was born in Winnipeg in 1925, died on April 16 at the age of 95. The Bruins’ alumni site has an obituary, here. After 98-year-old former Detroit Red Wing Steve Wochy, Peirson was the second-oldest NHLer.

Peirson got much of his hockey upbringing in Montreal, where he chased high-school pucks for Westmount Academy before joining the Montreal Junior Canadiens. After a stint in the Canadian Army, he studied and skated at McGill. In 1946, he signed for Boston’s AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, for a princely $4,500.  

As a rookie with the Bruins, Peirson found a berth on what teammate Woody Dumart dubbed the “Muscles Line,” for the irony: at 5’11” and 170 pounds, 22-year-old Peirson was the bulk of a unit that also counted centre Paul Ronty (6’, 150) and left winger Kenny Smith (5’7”, 155). 

“I would say I was above average because I was a better balanced player,” he told writer Frank Pagnucco, “a forward that knew how to backcheck. I had some defensive skills as well as being able to find the net sometimes.”

The first time he retired was in 1954, when he was 28. He stashed his skates to go into the furniture business with his father-in-law, across the river from Boston in Cambridge. He unretired after a year, rejoining the Bruins in 1955. His first game back, he played on a line with Cal Gardner and Vic Stasiuk, scoring a goal and setting up another to spark the Bruins to a 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks.

He played three seasons, after his comeback, and could have kept it going beyond that, maybe, but decided not to.  “You reach a point in your career where you realized you’ve lost half a step,” he said, looking back. “In those days, with six teams, there weren’t a lot of places to go. I had a job offer which I had to weigh against the possibility of making the team again or moving to another team … and with four kids, that didn’t make any sense.”

Regrets? Hockey-wise, he had at least a couple. “I’d have given my eyeteeth to play on a Stanley Cup winner,” he once said. He also wished he’d worked harder on developing his upper-body strength — his, well, muscles. “I would have been a better player. I lost a lot of battles and wasn’t able to do what I would like to have done from the point of view of strength.”

While the Bruins Peirson played for never won a Stanley Cup, he was at close hand when the team started winning championships in the late 1960s, serving as a long-time colour analyst on Bruins’ TV and radio broadcasts alongside Fred Cusick. 

Golden Bears: Boston’s Bruins, 1956-57 edition. Back row, from the left: Trainer Win Green, Larry Regan, Cal Gardner, Johnny Peirson, Floyd Smith, Leo Boivin, assistant trainer Hammy Moore. Middle, left to right: Doug Mohns, Jack Caffery, Floyd Hillman, Vic Stasiuk, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Jerry Toppazzini. Front, from left: Allan Stanley, Fleming Mackell, GM Lynn Patrick, Terry Sawchuk, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, Leo Labine, captain Fern Flaman.

number 22, willie o’ree

Beantowners: The 1960-61 Bruins line up for picture day. Back row, from left: Murray Oliver, Andre Pronovost, Dallas Smith, Charlie Burns, Willie O’Ree, Jim Bartlett, Gerry Ouellette. Middle row, from left: Trainer Win Green, Aut Erickson, Jerry Toppazzini, Gary Aldcorn, Tom McCarthy, Bob Armstrong, Don McKenney, Doug Mohns, Bronco Horvath, trainer Hammy Moore. Up front, from left: Bruce Gamble, Leo Boivin, GM Lynn Patrick, coach Milt Schmidt, president Walter Brown, captain Fern Flaman, Johnny Bucyk.

The Boston Bruins had a plan to raise Willie O’Ree’s number 22 to the upper reaches of the TD Garden tonight, in honour of his “trailblazing impact on and off the ice” — but then, you know, there’s this pandemic. Now, instead of a ceremony ahead of tonight’s fan-free game between the Bruins and New Jersey’s Devils, they’ll plan to do it (with full attendance, everybody hopes) on January 18, 2022 — 64 years to the day that O’Ree made his NHL debut. Of course, he wore 18 that particular night, and the next, when he and the Bruins tangled in a home-and-home series with the Montreal Canadiens. O’Ree took 22 when he returned to the Bruins’ line-up in the fall of 1960, the one seen here, with whom he played a more regular role over the course of 43 games. The first Bruin to wear 22? That would be defenceman Ed Kryzanowski, starting in 1948. Others to have borne it include Joe Klukay, Larry Hillman, Brad Park, and Brian Leetch. Shawn Thornton was the last Bruin to wear 22: it’s been out of circulation since he relinquished it in 2014.

boston’s worn + torn

Hurt Locker: Born in Newmarket, Ontario, on a Saturday of this date in 1907, Hall-of-Famer Dit Clapper played wing and defence during his 20 seasons with the Boston Bruins, and indeed he was the first player to make the NHL All-Star team as both a forward (1931) and as a defender (1940, ’41, ’44). He captained Boston for six seasons, and ended up coaching the Bs, too. That’s him here in the towel and stripy sock, eyeing the camera, in 1939 or so, under the care of Bruin trainer Win Green (in the rubber gloves). Over Clapper’s ankle is a diathermy (heat therapy) machine. In the foreground, taking a break from the funny pages, resting his wounded head, is Boston winger Charlie Sands. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

gear shift

Everything Goes: Skates and sticks and gloves, the sweater numbered 18 that left winger Red Hamill would be wearing. In October of 1941, Boston trainer Win Green (left) packed it all up with his assistant, Hammy Moore, for shipment to Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Art Ross’ Bruins convened their training camp ahead of the new season, scheduled to open November 8, in Toronto.

 

repairman

Foot Faults: Boston trainer Win Green works his tape and gauze on Terry Sawchuk. The goaltender’s mostly unhappy stint as a Bruin began in 1955 when Detroit traded him to make way in their nets for Glenn Hall. By early 1957 Sawchuk, ill and agitated, had turned his back on Boston midway through the season, retiring at age 27, and heading home to Detroit. By summer, he was back with the Red Wings in a deal that saw GM Jack Adams send Johnny Bucyk and a parcel of cash to Boston. AP was on hand at the announcement in June of ’57: “In contrast to the edgy, scowling individual who quit the Bruins at mid-season, explaining he was too sick and nervous to continue in the nets, Sawchuk was smiling and obliging today,” Dave Diles wrote. “He told newsmen at a press conference, ‘I never felt better.’”

war effort (3)

b bauer's collarbone

Bobby Bauer ended up in hospital in 1942, a month after he started skating for the RCAF Flyers. As a Bruin he’d only missed one game in five years, but serving his country he ended his season in practice with a fall that broke his collarbone. Above, his wife, Mauguerite, helps him with his shaving.

Porky Dumart was a defenseman all his amateur days — it was Art Ross who made him a left winger. As noted, Battleship Leduc was the one, coaching Milt Schmidt, Dumart, and Bobby Bauer when they played for the Providence Reds in 1937, who named the line. There are a couple of variations on this. Dumart says that he called them the Sauerkraut Line, which was later shortened to Kraut Line, “for our little German hometown.”

In 2002, Schmidt told it this way to Kevin Shea at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Leduc said:

“All you fellas come from Kitchener-Waterloo. There’s a lot of people of German descent from there. We gotta get a name for ya — the Kraut Line!” We didn’t mind. It was a name that kinda stuck to us.”

“It didn’t bother us,” Schmidt said in 1990. “The called us squareheads and everything else you can imagine back then. Who cared?”

War with Germany doesn’t seem to have brought about any immediate change in nomenclature. The Kitchener Kids was another nickname that dated back to their earliest days in Boston, and sometimes you see that in the wartime accounts, but mostly it’s Krauts.

A Boston paper, The Daily Record, did run a contest asking readers to rename the trio. And the winner was … The Buddy Line. “It didn’t last,” Schmidt said.

In February of 1942, joining the RCAF, he did think about adjusting his own name for the duration of the war. He asked his mother what she’d think of her son shipping overseas as a Smith. Go ahead, she said, fine.

“But I didn’t; I stayed with Schmidt. What the heck, I’d had it all my life.”

Arriving in Ottawa, they were described as “a mild-mannered group,” polite, not much to say. “We’re glad to be here,” Bauer confided. “We’ll do anything we can to help the air force. We’re taking this business seriously. Whether we play hockey depends on the air force and we’ll do our best to help the other members of the team bring the Allan Cup here.”

Which, of course, is just what they did, come April, though Bauer didn’t make it all that way, going down wounded in action, with a collarbone he fractured in practice. Continue reading