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The passing of longtime NHL great Johnny McKenzie: another guy I wish had been a Maple Leaf back in the day…

I heard today of the passing on longtime NHL player Johnny McKenzie at the age of 80. His name brought back fond memories of hockey times—and rivalries—past.

Let me be clear: when I was a young Maple Leaf fans in my late teens, from the mid-1960s through to the early 1970s, I loathed Johnny McKenzie. I mean, I hated the guy.

Before he joined a mediocre Bruins team during the 1965-’66 season, McKenzie was a bit of a journeyman winger, playing for my “local” NHL team (I was raised across the river from Detroit), the Red Wings, and later Chicago and New York.

He was a feisty guy, but in the old pre-expansion days with 6 teams and maybe 120 guys (actually less, as rosters were smaller back then) getting a chance to play regularly in the NHL was tough. He didn’t really especially stand out, as  recall.  But he was good enough that he kept his job in the league and teams wanted him.

But while he was a solid player, he never hit his stride—or made my hate list—until he became a part of the Bruins.

You see at the time, in the mid ‘60s, the Bruins were the perennial last place NHL team. They had (or previously had) some nice players like Leo Boivin and Johnny Bucyk— future Hall-of-Famers—along with Murray Oliver and emerging youngsters like Gary Dornhoefer, Gilles Marotte and U.S.-born Tommy Williams, who was the first American player in my recollection (other than Jack McCartan, the 1960 U.S. Olympic goaltending hero- himself sort of a latter day Jim Craig. McCartan had a brief career with the Rangers after the Olympics) to have a major impact at the NHL level.

But the Bruins were within shouting distance of seeing their fortunes turn around rather dramatically.

The reason? Bobby Orr belonged to the Bruins, signed as he was at the age of 12 or 13 out of Parry Sound, Ontario. When McKenzie first joined the Bruins, Orr was still starring in Junior A hockey with the Oshawa Generals.

But Orr joined the Bruins in McKenzie’s first full-season with Boston, and everything changed. (That's a great old Harold Barkley photo of McKenzie, left, on Jacques Plante's doorstep in early 1960s action when Johnny was with Chicago and Plante was with the Rangers.)

Then, in the summer of 1967 (yes, just after the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup…ugh), the Bruins made a big-time trade to acquire Freddie Stanfield, Ken Hodge and Phil Esposito from the Chicago Black Hawks. The Bruins gave up a dynamic little center in Pit Martin (along with Marotte and goalie jack Norris) but there was never any question that the Bruins  “won” that trade.

Martin was splendid with the Hawks, helping them get to two Cup finals in the early 1970s against the Montreal Canadiens, but Boston won two Cups with Esposito, Orr, the goaltending tandem of Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers, and a remarkably talented and hard-working supporting cast led by players like McKenzie.

The reason I hated McKenzie was simple: he was a gritty, determined player, the very kind of player that, as the Leafs were largely declining after their ’67 Cup triumph, they simply didn’t have anymore. (Their best gritty, rugged guys were past their best days, guys like Bobby Pulford, for example—who was so indispensable when the Leafs won all those championships in the ‘60s.)

But McKenzie, hitting his hockey prime as he and the Bruins grew together, absolutely thrived in the tiny Boston Garden.  

I’m going to say McKenzie was maybe 5 feet 9 inches tall. Maybe 175 pounds.  He was a strong, if smallish man for a pro hockey player. But other than maybe Montreal’s Yvan Cournoyer, I can’t think of another "small" forward in that late ‘60s and early ‘70s NHL era who loved barging into the corners of the tiny ice surface in Boston (or any NHL rink, for that matter) and getting hammered by a defenseman like nothing had happened. He just kept on going. He was constantly fighting for possession of the puck.

He was tough as nails, kept plays alive, scored goals, set up teammates, spent plenty of time in front of the opposing net, fought whenever called upon and was just generally miserable to play against. (The one Leaf who came closest to Johnny in that era, and unfortunately he only played briefly in Toronto, was Brian Spencer.  I loved Spencer in his time with the Leafs and have written about him here in the past.)  But McKenzie had the advantage of being a great skater, very fast, in addition to being physical.

So as the Leaf slid in their ability to compete against the best in the NHL in those early expansion years, the Bruins were at their zenith with not only Orr and Espo but also guys like rugged Derek Sanderson and dependable veterans like Dallas Smith, Wayne Cashman and Eddie Westfall.

The Bruins won the title in 1970 and 1972, and would likely have won in 1971 were it not for the hated Habs, who upset them in Round 1 of the playoffs that spring. (To realize how good a team the Bruins had given that they were favoured, it's instructive to check out Montreal’s roster that season—they had guys like Savard, Lapointe, LaPerriere, Beliveau, Richard, Cournoyer, the Mahovlich brothers, a young Ken Dryden and a lot more than that. Yet their playoff win over Boston was indeed considered a major upset.)

I will always remember McKenzie, at the end of the loss in Game 7 against Montreal at the Boston Garden on an April afternoon, finishing the series with two black eyes. He had played his heart out, as he always did, this time in defeat. (I seem to recall Johnny scored a goal with about 5 minutes to go in regulation time in that last game, to make the score 4-2 for Montreal. But that’s as close as the Bruins could get.)

So I hated McKenzie because, well, he played with the cocky (as I saw it, at least) “Big Bad Bruins” who had far surpassed my Leafs in those years. And perhaps just as much to the point, he played for the stacked Bruins when I would have loved him to be with the Maple Leafs.

It’s interesting, many years ago I read that Dave Keon, who needs to identifiers on this site, hated Johnny McKenzie when Dave was with the Leafs and Johnny was with the Bruins.  If true, it makes sense. Dave was the quiet leader of the Leafs, a Lady Byng winner who played with class and grace. He was very tough in his own way, but the Bruins, while immensely talented, did cross the line in their aggressive style, and McKenzie was one of the toughest of them all. 

Later, when they both played for the New England Whalers for many years in the old World Hockey Association and played side by side on the same line, they evidently became the best of friends.

My guess is they had long actually admired one another, but these two great competitors were simply on different teams. And in those days, there weren’t many, if any friends, from one team to another in the NHL. And while the Bruins were better than the Leafs in those days, they were still rivals. And Keon and McKenzie were two competitors with a tremendous amount of pride—in themselves, and their respective teams.

So to say the least I was sad to hear that Johnny McKenzie had died. He was a wonderful player. I have such great memories of the talented, hard-driving player that he was. 

Goodbye Johnny.

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