Remembering Former Red Wings’ Iron Man Johnny Wilson

When the Red Wings won four Stanley Cup championships within a seven year consecutive run of league titles during the Glory Days of the 1950s, durable left winger Johnny Wilson proved to be an important spoke for the Winged Wheel as it rolled through the NHL.

Johnny Wilson“In our team effort, Johnny Wilson contributed tremendously because he had talent, could skate, and really make the play,” says Ted Lindsay who was the captain of a team that featured fellow Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Red Kelly, Terry Sawchuk, Marcel Pronovost, and Alex Delvecchio.

Wilson was known as the “Iron Man of Hockey” in the Fifties when he played eight straight seasons without missing a game from 1952-1953 to 1959-1960 (580 games), an NHL record that stood until it was broken a few years later by Andy Hebenton of the Rangers.

Wilson first appeared with Detroit during the ’49-50 playoffs when the Wings won the Cup. After more seasoning in the minors, his big breakthrough occurred when he was called up for good towards the end of the ’51-’52 season and placed on a third line with Alex Delvecchio and Metro Prystai. The trio soon proved to be an invaluable line for the Red Wing’s juggernaut.

In the first two semi-final games against Toronto at Olympia Stadium, Wilson scored the first goal in a 3-0 victory and the following night scored the game winner in a 1-0 shutout. He added two more goals against the Leafs in that series as the Wings swept to the championship by defeating Toronto and Montreal in the minimum eight games, (the first team ever to do so) largely on the strength of Detroit’s new third line and Terry Sawchuk’s four brilliant shutouts.

However after winning their fourth Stanley Cup in six years in the Spring of 1955, GM Jack Adams shocked the hockey world when he broke up the team and traded eight of his players in two trades, including Wilson, who was dealt to Chicago.

“It was so disappointing because our team had such great chemistry because we had all developed together,” says Wilson. “I don’t know if Jack thought we were going to be complacent, but had the team not be broken up I think we would have won a few more Cups.”

Wilson was later traded back to Detroit for two more campaigns in the late 50’s before finishing his career with Toronto and the New York Rangers. In the process, his record consecutive game streak ended in 1960 with Toronto when he held out for more money before being dealt to New York.

Four years after retiring in 1962, Wilson embarked on a new hockey career as an innovative head coach, first at Princeton University where he turned around a losing program and later in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, the Red Wings, the Colorado Rockies, and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also coached in the American Hockey League where his Springfield Kings won the Calder Cup in 1971 and in the World Hockey League with the Michigan Stags and Cleveland Crusaders. In 1977 Wilson was Team Canada’s head coach for the World Championship series. (His nephew Ron Wilson is the head coach of the San Jose Sharks.)

In his two year stint as Detroit’s head coach (’71-72 to ’72-73) Wilson whipped the Wings into shape as he pioneered a strenuous conditioning program that included on ice and post game exercises while adding a universal gym to Olympia’s expanded locker room facility.

“I really enjoyed coaching Detroit having been a Red Wing as a kid,” says Wilson. “We started having sellout crowds again but we were a little short on goaltending and in some other areas, and because we didn’t make the playoffs I was fired. It was very disappointing because management didn’t have the patience. If I had one more year I think we would have made the playoffs for several years after that.”

It would be another 15 seasons before a Red wing coach (Jacques Demers, ’87-’88) produced another winning record after Wilson went 37-29-12 in ’72-’73.

After Wilson left coaching in the late ‘70s he remained in the Detroit area where he became a successful manufacturer’s representative in the automotive industry. For several years he also worked with the Detroit Police Department by conducting the “Johnny Wilson Leadership Hockey Program” for inner city youth. Wilson still lives in the Detroit area.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.