The son of a hardware-store manager, Mr. Johnston lucked into a scholarship at Harvard University when the prestigious school set out to bring in students of “modest background” to give some real-world balance to the students of New England privilege. Mr. Johnston had excelled in school as well as at hockey, football and baseball. He naively went out for the Harvard football team, only to find at the first practice that the coach expected his quarterbacks to fire a football through a tire suspended 40 yards down the field.
“I couldn’t throw 40 yards with the wind behind me,” Mr. Johnston laughs.
But he not only made the hockey team, he became its captain. Playing defence – moved back from forward by coach Cooney Weiland after Mr. Johnston had injured his left hand playing football – he led the Crimson to the league championship in 1963, was twice an All-American and, a year ago, was listed as one of the top 50 players of all time in ECAC hockey.
“He was a terrific hockey player,” says James Dwinell III, a teammate who went on to become chairman of Boston-based Cambridge Bancorp and is now retired in Florida. “Total, total hustle, strong as a bull in the corners. We practised a lot and every practice had a scrimmage, and David’s approach to every drill, every scrimmage was the same as if it was a big game. He had one speed only, and he never gave up. David was a grinder with a capital ‘G.’ ”
Mr. Johnston was tough but no fighter. “I certainly got my share of roughing penalties and elbowing and so on,” he says. “But I don’t recall ever being in a hockey fight.”
He was a ferocious checker. “Cooney would say to me, ‘Johnny, I want you to go in that corner and come out with your teeth and the puck.’ ”
When Mr. Weiland died at age 80 in 1985, Mr. Johnston gave the eulogy. He also wrote a 15-page appreciation that he gave to his daughters so they would know what “Cooney” meant to their father. “The lessons we learned from him on the hockey rink,” the future governor-general wrote of his coach, “have been remarkably wise steering influences in our lives in how we handle life’s exigencies.”
Mr. Weiland – who had won the 1929-30 NHL scoring championship with the Boston Bruins – admired Mr. Johnston, who was, like him, a small player surviving and thriving in a very tough game. In 1963, when Mr. Johnston was graduating, he and Mr. Weiland discussed the chances of Mr. Johnston making the Bruins as a free agent.
“I weighed 150 pounds,” Mr. Johnston recalls. “We concluded that my chances of making the team were 10 to 15 per cent. But there were six teams then. Five years later, there was twice that many.” He might have tried had expansion come earlier to the league. He decided to stay studying, which he loved so much the Boston Globe once ran a story – somewhat cooked, he claims – that he had been working on his thesis between periods of a game.
Mr. Johnston remained in academia, studying at Cambridge and Queen's, later teaching corporate law and public policy and also serving as an administrator at the University of Western Ontario, McGill and the University of Waterloo, where he served as president up until his appointment as Governor-General in 2010.
A few years after Mr. Johnston graduated from Harvard, Erich Segal, a Harvard professor who used to run along the Charles River with Mr. Johnston, published Love Story – later a movie starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw – and the mega-seller included a character, Davey Johnston, who was captain of the hockey team. Mr. Segal captured the real David Johnston’s intensity when he had the main character, Oliver, take a dumb penalty in the final minutes of the championship match. Oliver sat helplessly watching as his captain skated “right by me without so much as a glance. And did I notice tears in his eyes? I mean, okay, the title was at stake, but Jesus – tears!”