These days, the real David Johnston almost weeps for his beloved game. He and his childhood sweetheart, Sharon – they first went out when she was 13 – had five daughters and the daughters now have children skating and playing. Their twin four-year-old grandchildren live close by in Ottawa and often play on the outdoor rink.
“These are kids who are into all sports and they may not have them in hockey,” he says with more than a hint of sadness. “What we see on television is a violent game. We teach not to escalate conflict. Someone bumps into you and the Canadian way is to say ‘Excuse me,’ don’t wait for the other person to say ‘Excuse me.’ Our whole history has been one of avoiding conflict and usually finding consensus and compromise.
“Well, you leap into sports and say ‘Does that transfer?’ I think it does. Because Canadians are known as people who are wonderfully competitive and tenacious and all that, but we’re also known as a highly civilized people in how we conduct ourselves. And when I see on TV the amount of fighting going on, and the goonery, they are not qualities we want to celebrate in our game. They are not the qualities we want to teach our children.
“I want my grandchildren to be able to play hockey and to be able to play the game at its great speed, and its great pace and its great competitive level, but to do so in a way that is civilized and doesn’t encourage a kind of thuggery.”
He wants to see change.
The time for debating over whether or not head injuries, however inflicted, are extremely dangerous to health is no longer a useful debate. He wants to see action. He wants to see equipment that protects and does not injure the other players. He wants more severe penalties for slashing, which he sees as “a deliberate attempt to lift up your stick and use it like a club.” He wants fighting to be an instant game misconduct – “and a second fight would be five games” – and he disdains the arguments that fighting is a necessary safety valve. “In any other sport – baseball, basketball, football – they deal with fighting accordingly.” As for the contention that if you eliminate fighting you will force players to retaliate with dirty stick work, he says, “You deal with that retaliation with equally harsh penalties. Other sports manage it and don’t seem to have those consequences.
“Headshots should be gone and fighting should be gone,” Mr. Johnston believes. “To my mind, hockey is the greatest game in the world. And it is so because it’s faster than anything else. Because of that speed, the playmaking, the intricacies, the virtuosity you have, along with the consciousness of five good teammates, make it just a beautiful game. And those are the qualities we want to emphasize. Not the taking off the gloves and beating up on one another.”
He is asked if a society that treats a game as religion can change, and he pauses for a long moment before answering.
“I think you can,” he says. “And I think you especially can in a country like Canada.”
He rhymes off a long list of profound cultural changes in his lifetime: ParticipAction, recycling, seatbelts, smoking …
“I think we can return the beautiful game of hockey to the qualities of the game that are most attractive about it. The speed, the playmaking, the teamwork, the skill.”
And then he is off, snow swirling behind him as he skates, the Grinder with a capital ‘GG’ who believes he has a duty to speak out on the national game.