"Piece of cake. Piece of cake out there."
It has become a standard greeting from one goalie to another, decades apart in age but united in understanding. Eddie Johnston, who turned 80 on Nov. 23, always has a supportive word for Pittsburgh Penguins franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who turned 31 on Nov. 28.
"He's just a great man, an awesome man," Fleury says of the guy known universally as E.J. "Since my first year here, he's always been checking up on me, saying hi, talking."
It's not just the goalies who appreciate Johnston.
"That guy is special," says Bill Guerin, a former player and now a Pittsburgh assistant general manager. "You look at a guy like that and you see why the game is special. E.J. comes walking in the room, he's one of the guys. Guys gravitate toward him."
Johnston, a Montreal native who gets a twinkle in his eye when he talks about hockey, was the last goalie to play every minute of every game in an NHL season, for the 1963-64 Boston Bruins. He later won two Stanley Cups as a Bruins backup and another in 2009 as a senior advisor with Pittsburgh.
Between, Johnston coached in Chicago and in Pittsburgh (twice) and was general manager in Pittsburgh and Hartford. As Penguins GM, he drafted Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux first overall in 1984. He has joked over the years that he should have gotten a Cup ring from Pittsburgh in 1991 when, as Whalers GM, he sent Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Penguins for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker at the trade deadline.
Johnston is retired, but he can't stay away from hockey. He and his wife of 47 years, Diane, have lived in suburban Pittsburgh since 1980, save for the three seasons he was in Hartford. He attends most Penguins home games.
He took some time recently to talk to ESPN.com.
Anderson: You were the last goalie to play every minute of every game for a team, and you did it without a mask?
Johnston: Yeah. No brains, either. On my back was my IQ back then. I was No. 1. You really only had one [goalie] back then.
Anderson: When did you start wearing a mask?
Johnston: I got hit in Detroit in the warmups [by teammate Bobby Orr's slap shot on Halloween night 1968] and I was in a coma for six weeks. I remember [St. Louis goalie] Glenn Hall came up to the hospital to see me when his team came in town, and he put the mask on that night. Back then we wore [the form-fitting white "Friday the 13th"] masks. If the puck hit you hard, you would get cut, but it would save you from breaking bones. Now [masks] are terrific, all the equipment for the goalies. With us, starting at training camp, you were black and blue and you were hurting all the time. Your arm pads were soft. You had a chest protector, but you never had anything for your shoulders. They have protection all over now, thank God.
Anderson: You guys are close, so that means you forgave Bobby Orr?
Johnston: Oh, yeah. I talk to him once a week. We're still good friends. He's the godfather to one of my sons, E.J.
Anderson: Do you remember meeting him?
Johnston: He came in as an 18-year-old [in 1966-67], and his dad came to training camp. His dad said to me, "I'd like to have my son stay with you." I looked at him and I said, "Are you sure you've got the right guy?" Because back then I had a nickname of "Downtown." I used to go to the bars and have a few drinks. He said, "Yeah, they told me that you were the guy that he should stay with." So [Orr] would take me downtown. I would go in the bars. He would go to the movies or something and pick me up around 11:30, 12 o'clock. After a week or two, I bought him a chauffeur's hat. I'd come out of the bar and go in the back seat and he'd drive us home. Here we are, the best player in the game driving me around. He stayed with me for a couple of years, but he never drank until he was 21. Ever. I made sure of that.
Anderson: When you won the two Cups with Boston, what were the celebrations like?
Johnston: I owned a nightclub called E.J.'s back then. We stayed open for almost 48 straight hours. There were two kids that worked on the door because we had lines all night long. The two kids on the door, the first Cup they made $15,000 apiece letting people in. The second one, they made $20,000 apiece. The celebrations were crazy. Back then you had the motorcycles with the sidecars. We brought a cop in and he had a few drinks in him and got to feeling pretty good, so we put him in the sidecar and drove him around the city. Johnny McKenzie took his helmet and drove him around. [The cop] got "suspended" for a couple of days. You got away with things like that back then. [If you won a title in Boston] you could drive up the wrong side of the street, and they would blame the other guy. You couldn't get away with it now.
Anderson: Fast-forward to your time as Penguins GM. There are so many reports of the huge offers you got for the pick you used to select Lemieux.
Johnston: Montreal and Quebec were the funniest. Quebec wanted him. Montreal wanted to make sure that I didn't give [the pick] to Quebec. [Minnesota GM] Lou Nanne offered me all of his picks. Quebec offered me the Stastnys, and they were really good at that time. I had some terrific offers, but I told Mr. [Edward] DeBartolo [the Pittsburgh team owner] that I was fortunate enough to play with Orr, and a player like that comes around once in a blue moon. The first day that Mr. DeBartolo came to training camp, he said, "Thank God you didn't listen to some of those people and trade him." They had been giving their draft picks away all the time. There were some people in the organization that wanted me to grab some players. I said, "I'm not trading him." But we had some great offers.
Anderson: There's some criticism that the league is going back to allowing obstruction and the stars can't be the stars. Do you agree with that?
Johnston: Yeah, I agree with some of that. It was really bad when Mario played. They hooked him. The puck could be on the other side, and they would put a stick on him and hold him up. It was awful. You've got the best players in the game, let them play with that kind of skill level. You want the top guys playing at their best. You don't want guys impeding guys. I remember we were playing in Hartford. I was coaching here in Pittsburgh, and they put Patty Verbeek and somebody else, two guys who just stayed with Mario. Mario just stayed back inside our blue line, and there are the two guys standing there [giving the Penguins the equivalent of a four-on-three power play]. I went over [to the Whalers' area] after, and Verbeek said that was the most embarrassing thing that he ever did, go and stand inside the blue line while we were in their end. That kind of stuff, you don't want to get back to that.
Anderson: You're still one of the guys in Pittsburgh, a presence around the locker room. Has the personality of today's locker room changed?
E.J: It's a hockey locker room. I go down after every game. I go see the coaches. Sometimes they'll ask me if there's something I saw in the game. [With the players] I just go say hello, try to pump them up. I always give Sid [Crosby] the knuckles [a fist bump]. When things are not going good, he says, "Where the hell are you? You've got to give me the knuckles to get us going." If he didn't score for a couple of games, the day of the game I'll go in that morning and as soon as he sees me, he comes over [and gets his fist bump]. [After Crosby's slow start this season], I went in one day, [gave him the fist bump] and he got three points that night [against Florida on Oct. 20]. As soon as he sees me after the game, he starts to laugh.
Anderson: If you can whittle it down, what are a couple of your favorite stories from your career?
Johnston: Some of them are unprintable.
I remember I was coaching the Blackhawks. We were in Boston, and we hadn't won in Boston in four or five years. We had a game that following day. I came in about 1 in the morning and I see Dougie Wilson sneaking in [past curfew]. I yelled at him. He went in and closed the door. We played the next day and we won 2-1. Guess who scores the winning goal? Dougie.
I was coaching Pittsburgh, and we were in Toronto. I get in around 12 o'clock and there's a guy at the door. He says, "Mr. Johnston, can I get your autograph?" I said, "Yeah." He said something about the players. I told him when they come in have them sign. I was the only [signature] on the book. So I go down to practice the next day and I ask the players, "Everybody in last night?" Oh, yeah. "Curfew?" They said everybody was in. I said, "Well, I've got this book here. I signed it at 12 o'clock and there's four or five guys on here who signed it after me." I didn't fine them -- I never fined anybody -- but I let them know that I knew. It was an old trick.
Anderson: Concussions weren't on people's radar when you played and coached. What do you think of the large amount of concussion awareness today?
Johnston: I think there's a big improvement. If they have any indication that a guy [might have a concussion], they get the doctor right away, and the doctor makes that decision whether to tell the coach he's not available. They pick up the signs pretty quickly now, which is very good. I remember when I was playing, I know some guys that had concussions, they would come to the wrong bench and stuff like that. You didn't know back then. All you would do is give them a little smelling salts and they went out and played. Now they take all the precautions. That's terrific.
Anderson: That all sounds great. Thanks a lot for your time.