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'EJ' in transition year with Pens

Sunday, Oct. 7, 2007

One look at all those Steelers-style tailgate parties raging outside Mellon Arena early Saturday evening brought to mind an old Eddie Johnston quote.

"If it wasn't for Mario," Johnston said, "this place would be a parking lot."

This place will be a parking lot in three years, when the new arena opens. Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby are two large reasons for that, obviously, but don't discount Johnston's contribution.

And he has more to do with the current club than you might think.

Everybody knows "EJ" tanked the 1983-84 season when he was the Penguins' general manager -- he'll never admit it -- to ensure the right to draft Lemieux. If that hadn't happened, the franchise would have waddled its way to Kansas City or some such place long ago.

What isn't so well-known is that Johnston did some masterful match-making back in 1957 with his junior team in Shawinigan Falls, Quebec.

And it had nothing to do with line combinations.

Rather, Johnston, then a goaltender in the Montreal Canadiens' organization, introduced teammate/assistant coach Fred Shero to the sister of a woman Johnston was dating.

"Fred told me after their first date, 'I'll marry that girl,' " Johnston said. "And it wasn't long before he did."

Five years later, Fred and Mariette Shero had a son named Rejean, or Ray, the Penguins' current general manager. The late Fred Shero became a hockey legend coaching the Philadelphia Flyers.

"If it wasn't for me, Ray wouldn't be here," Johnston says, laughing.

"He never lets me forget it," Shero said.

EJ still has the wedding picture, the one where Fred and Mariette are walking beneath an arch of hockey sticks, formed by two lines of Shawinigan Falls hockey players.

Forty years later, Johnston and Shero sat in the Mellon Arena press box, high above the ice surface, watching a raucous sellout crowd greet the 2007-08 Penguins before their home opener against the Anaheim Ducks (whose coach, Randy Carlyle, was traded as part of the aforementioned effort to secure Lemieux's services in '84).

This is a year of transition for the 72-year-old Johnston. His title has been changed from assistant general manager to senior advisor of hockey operations. He won't be connected from the press box to the bench via headset anymore. Gilles Meloche has taken that role.

Johnston will be at all of the home games, but won't travel full-time, which marks the first time he'll be at home for most of a winter in 57 years.

Will wife Diane be happy to have him there?

"I don't think so," he says.

In a way, getting off the road is a relief, and Johnston is eagerly anticipating the birth of his first grandchild in November.

But you know he'll get the itch.

"You think it's a relief now," he says. "After a while, you'll miss it. I'm sure I'll be saying, 'OK, I'll just go to this game,' and then I'll go to that one and then the next one."

As the lone front-office holdover from the Craig Patrick administration, EJ remains a valued member of the staff. This is his 24th year of service to the Penguins.

He still has that twinkle in his eye, still loves the game and doesn't plan on quitting anytime soon.

"I always bounce things off of him, get his opinions," Shero said. "He knows the league. He knows the players. The great thing about EJ, he's such a loyal person. He'll always be loyal to Craig Patrick and (former Penguins head scout) Greg Malone and those guys, which I find admirable. He's been very good to this organization."

Shero feels a degree of loyalty toward EJ, too, of course.

He wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him.




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