Thursday, July 24, 2008

Johnny Mac Still Bringing Home Hardware For DU

(above) Johnny MacMillan and his wife, Jolene at last week's Snoopy's Senior World Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, CA. Johnny Mac won two National Championships at DU ('58 & '60) and two Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs ('62 & '63)

LetsGoDU: This may be the best article we've ever published in LetsGoDU. MacMillan recalls his years at DU, Denver's legendary coach Murray Armstrong, his days in the NHL, his thoughts on Coach Gwozdecky and one memorable day with the Stanley Cup in 2005. Thanks to D.J. & Johnny Mac for sharing this fantastic story with us.

The Incredible Journey Of A DU Hockey Legend

Exclusive to LetsGoDU

By DJ Powers
Staff Writer - NCAA
Hockey's Future (

Future Considerations (

Some call him “Mr. Two Rings”, but most people around the DU hockey program know him simply as “Johnny Mac."

John MacMillan played for the University of Denver from 1957 to 1960, and was a member of DU’s 1958 and 1960 National Championship teams, the latter of which he served as team captain. In three seasons with DU he scored 65 goals and added 62 assists. During his Denver career DU went 74-19-6, won two National Championships and drew 270,000 paid admissions in the DU Ice Arena.

He went on to play professionally for ten years from 1960 to 1971 that included the better part of five years in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings. MacMillan was a member of the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 1962 and 1963. Most recently, he worked as a color commentator and rinkside reporter for the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads.

MacMillan holds the distinction of being the only former DU Pioneer to have won both a National Championship and a Stanley Cup.

And he’s done it twice.

He, along with the rest of the Pioneers 1958 National Championship team will be inducted into the University of Denver’s Sports Hall of Fame on the weekend of Oct. 24.

Today, MacMillan still plays for the Denver Pioneers – in the annual Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament in Santa Rosa, CA. [The Denver Pioneers won the 60A Division Championship]

“I think the first time that I came to this tournament was in 2000. I missed 2006 and 2007,” said MacMillan. “I had to go to a family reunion in 2006, and in 2007 I hurt my elbow, so I didn’t make it. So that makes it six of them that I’ve been to. Jack Smith got me started, so that’s pretty exciting.”

MacMillan recalls a reunion that took place at Copper Mountain in 2003 when teammate Don “Cammy” Cameron, the driving force behind the Pioneers tournament team, got up to make a speech with the tournament trophy.

“I hauled it over to Copper Mountain. I took it in and Cammy got up and put the trophy up there, and said ‘you guys all need to put your skates back on because this thing (Snoopy Tournament) goes on. Here’s the fun we had, and here’s our trophy for winning it.’ I think some of them might have kind of taken it to heart.”

The Pioneers won their division at this year’s tournament when they defeated their tournament nemesis the University of Michigan 3-2 on Sunday.

And yes, they got to take home another trophy too.

John MacMillan was born in 1935 in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Today, he and his wife, Jolene make their home in Boise, Idaho. He spent part of his childhood growing up in Grand Prairie, just north of Edmonton before moving back to southern Alberta, settling in small town called Milk River near the U.S. border. His mother was a teacher and his father was a grain elevator operator. He has a sister who is a golf enthusiast, and two brothers, who also played hockey though not professionally. His brother Keith’s two sons however did play professionally.

Many who follow college hockey know MacMillan’s nephew Tavis from his days at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks as both a player and a coach. Tavis MacMillan is now a scout with the Atlanta Thrashers organization. MacMillan’s other nephew, Bradley will be joining the defending Turner Cup Champion Fort Wayne Komets (IHL) this fall.

While MacMillan’s own sons, or “my boys” as he proudly refers to them, did not follow in their father’s footsteps into pro hockey, they do share his love of sports. His boys’ sport of choice is baseball.

“I have one boy that coaches baseball at the high school level in Tennessee. He loves it,” MacMillan glowingly said. “My other boy, Rob lives in California and went to school in Phoenix where you learn all of the fundamentals to be a scout. So he could go to San Diego, watch a high school team play and critique a boy, if he was asked to by a (MLB) club. Which has never happened. I’m sure he would be very excited if it did. And I think it would be a good thing for him.”

So just how did Johnny Mac come to play for the University of Denver? The tale behind it is probably one of the funniest and best recruiting stories you’ll ever hear or read about.

“Well, I was playing in Lethbridge and Murray Armstrong was the coach in Regina. I wanted to go to university and I wanted to play hockey. When I was playing in Lethbridge, we came to Denver and played an exhibition game against DU. Armstrong wasn’t there yet. Later, I heard that Armstrong had been hired as the new coach at DU. So I wrote him a letter in 1956. My dad was dying and he died that year. I was through with juniors and I was supposed to go to New York Rangers organization. The (Lethbridge Native Suns belonged Rangers). At that time, if you played for an NHL-sponsored team, and they thought enough of you, they’d invite you to a camp. I was supposed to go to the camp in Winnipeg with the Saskatoon Quakers of the old Western Canada Hockey League, but instead I wrote to Armstrong and said that I wanted to come to DU. Murray wrote back, in his glorified terms ‘Why John, you’re just the type of boy that we’d like to have at DU’. The whole malarkey that he had and still has I’m sure. (Laughs). I was accepted (into the school) and it was a great four years.”

As MacMillan explains Armstrong was a very unique coach and the experience of playing for him was unlike that of any other coach, pro or otherwise.

“He wanted the best from you and he didn’t put up with a lot of shenanigans on the ice. I don’t think that he had to reprimand or maybe he had to go to bat for someone of us at some point as far as our grades and what not."

Once I left DU and then went to play pro, Murray became a whole different individual. I think over time Murray changed. Some of the guys in the classes that came through after mine, because we were the first ones with Murray, would say ‘well he changed this and he changed that’, but I felt that he was always someone that you could talk to. You’d always go to talk to Murray and he’d say ‘Is that right? Honest to God, is that a fact?’ And you knew that Murray was no more listening to you than the man on the moon, but what he was trying to get across to you was that he was listening but he was also thinking about something else. So, you’d be in there with your little problem and he could probably handle it, but he would say ‘Honest to God, John is that a fact?’ At that point, you kind of knew that it was over. He understands your problem, so you didn’t talk anymore. You can listen to all of the guys here at the tournament and we’d all make fun of him. (Laughs) You’d be talking and someone would say ‘is that a fact?’ You’d know right away that Murray said that all the time.

In each pre-game speech, Murray would try to put a new word into your vocabulary. He’d have this speech and then out would come this word, and then you could see everybody look around and go ‘what was that?’ He used that word and he’d never used that word before. Then either after practice or the next day, we’d all be asking each other ‘do you know what that word was? Do you know what it means?’ We’d all try and figure out what that word meant. The word that stuck with me was “inveigle”. That was the one word from all of those years that I could remember. I know what it means now. I’ve heard used, but not a lot.”

MacMillan sees many similarities between Armstrong and current Pioneers head coach George Gwozdecky, not the least of which is a building a winner at the University of Denver.

“I think the two of them are really quality individuals. I would say that George is a little more intense than Murray was. I haven’t been around George that much. I’ve watched him on TV and have talked with him. But, the level of play when I was there and the level of play that George has to contend with now probably merits that. He has to be there with that. He's really a very commendable representative for the University of Denver. He carries himself very, very assuredly. He’s used to being a winner, he knows what it takes to be a winner and I think he carries himself that way."

"Murray represented that as well. He was so used to winning in Regina, and he had a system set up that continually replenished his talent pool. He had the pee-wees, midgets and juveniles programs feeding his team. He was successful at it too. Hell, I don’t know how often he went to the Memorial Cup playoffs or won Western Canada Junior Hockey, but he was a successful coach and a winner. And he exuded that.”

(left) MacMillan was the Captain of the 1960 National Championship team

One of MacMillan’s greatest memories from his years at the University of Denver was guiding the Pioneers to the 1960 National Championship by defeating the John MacInnes-coached Michigan Tech Huskies in Boston. MacMillan had scored two goals in the final minute that led the Pioneers’ 5-3 win, including the game-winner. A now-famous story that emerged from the victory has to do with MacMillan getting the game-winning puck. But as MacMillan explains, a National Championship title and the puck weren’t the only things that he took home from that memorable event.

“I had the game-winning goal and I had another goal in the last minute. One won the game and the other one was an empty netter. I think it was someone from Denver ended up with the puck somehow. I do still have that puck, although I can't remember who saved the puck. Bob Martin, who did the radio for Denver for years, got a letter from somebody saying that they had recorded the game over the radio. I still have a tape at home of the recording of the whole game that somebody gave me, so that was pretty awesome to get it. But again, it was a Denver fan that had recorded it and gave it to me.”

After leaving DU in 1960, MacMillan went on to play in both the NHL and the AHL. At the time, his rights were held by the New York Rangers. But a bit of luck and the prejudices against U.S. collegiate players at the time would play crucial roles in MacMillan ending up with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Earlier in the season when I was at DU in 1959-60, we went up to play at Michigan Tech, and Bob Davidson, who was the head scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, came down to watch a game. We were sitting around eating breakfast one morning and he came over and said ‘my name is Bob Davidson and I’d like to talk to you.’ So I went over and talked to him for a little while, and I didn’t think much about it.

When I decided to go to DU, the Rangers released me. They didn’t want any part of me anymore, so they dropped me from their "Protected List”. Any professional club who thought that was I worth a hoot could pick me up. The Leafs put me on their List after Davidson had talked to me. Thank God, Connie (Conn Smythe) had moved on by the time I was Protected by Toronto because he didn't think much of U.S. college players. Ol’ Connie would basically say ‘we don’t want any of those candy-ass collegiate kids in our league or on our club.’ Davidson came to the game when we played Tech because Louie Angotti, who played for Tech, had been with the Toronto Marlboros before he went to Michigan Tech. I think Louie was pretty highly regarded. He called Davidson and told him that he should have a look at me. Eventually I received a letter from Toronto inviting me to their camp and the rest is history.”

MacMillan spent roughly three and a half years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning two Stanley Cups with them. MacMillan’s teammates on those Maple Leaf teams read like a Hockey Hall of Fame Who’s Who. But it was playing for the legendary George “Punch” Imlach that he remembers most fondly about his time in Toronto.

“When I was in Toronto, Imlach had acquired Al (Arbour) from Chicago. And we were sort of like in a farm system. Back then a farm system would have maybe have a defenseman, a goaltender, and a forward that would go back and forth (from the big club). Imlach was good to me. I mean they’ve got all these Marlies that I was playing with in Rochester, but I was the kid that Punch chose to run back and forth. That was good for me. Al was the defenseman, and I was like the tenth forward. So when you’re doing that, you feel like you’re a part of the team, but you also don’t feel like you’re a part of the team. You get to do that a little bit and you work hard to stay there. A lot of the players with Toronto at that time had come up through the Marlies organization. And Punch just came in and worked his magic with all of the personalities. He had a real feel for being able to get more out of people than probably a lot of other people could. Some guys didn’t like him, and some people had bad things to say about him. He brings up Johnny Bower, who was something like 40 years old, and gets five, six great years out of him. You would hear the names (Frank) Mahovlich, Red Kelly, Tim Horton, Bobby Baun, Carl Brewer and all of those guys. Wow! You want to try to break into a tough lineup? Try and get into that lineup! So when I hear those names, I get all choked up from just having been around them.

Punch was always honest with me and he gave me every opportunity to try to get me to do what he wanted to me to do. I was playing pro for, oh maybe one or two years and I remember Bobby Kromm was coaching in Trail (BC), and Trail had won the Allen Cup and would be going to the World Hockey Championships. It was in ’61, ’62 somewhere in there. At the time, the Allen Cup in Canada used to be symbolic of the team that would go to the World Championships, and then later they changed all of that. So I called Kromm and I told him who I was and where I was. He said ‘I know who you are.’ So I said ‘Well, I’ve got my degree in Engineering and I’d love to go to Europe with you.’ I’ve always wanted to go to Europe, just to play and see it. So he said ‘if you can get your Amateur Card, then you’re here.’ So I went to camp, worked hard and never said a word to anybody. I was still with the Leafs and then it came time for me to go talk to Punch. It wasn’t a helluva lot of fun, but you had to go talk to Punch. (Laughs) So I talked to Punch and we got to talking, then I said ‘I want to tell you that I called Bobby Kromm and this is what I’d really like to do.’ Then Punch said ‘I won’t do that for you, simply because Eddie Shore will pick you up.’ And then he said ‘ If you don’t go play for him, you’ll never play hockey again because he won’t release you. He’ll just hang on to you and that would be the end of anything that you’d ever want to do.’ So I didn’t get my Amateur Card and I didn’t go to Europe.”

In today’s NHL, each member of the Stanley Cup winning team gets to spend a day with Lord Stanley’s Cup. For MacMillan, his day came one summer day in August of 2005. While his time with the Cup in Milk River is well documented, an equally entertaining, if not more hilarious story was that of his travels with it to the border town of Sweetgrass, Montana.

“One day, I think it was Friday or Saturday, we were all sitting around and Mike (Mike Bolt, one of the keepers of Lord Stanley’s Cup) said, ‘I’d really like to take the Cup to Montana because there’s no reason that it’ll ever go there, but it’s been in all these states and I’d like to think someday that it’s been in every state in the United States.’ So I said, ‘hell, it’s only 13 miles from Milk River to Sweetgrass. So let’s go.’ So he says ‘what we’ll do is throw in the back (of the truck), we’ll just go down there and we’ll take a picture.’ He wanted to go down there, hold the Cup under the “Welcome to Montana” sign and take a picture. Then he says ‘I don’t want to report that I have the Cup.’ And I said ‘if you go through there (the border) and coming back they decide that they want to search you and you can’t sell them on the fact that you don’t have what you shouldn’t have at the border, and they find that Cup, then you’re going to spend hours there explaining why you have the Stanley Cup. So we convinced him that he should stop and tell them that he has the Cup and what he’s going to do. So we go through towards the American side. He pulls up (at the border), rolls down his window, and the guy begins asking him all the questions. So then he sticks his head out the window and asks the guy ‘do you know what the Stanley Cup is?’ The guy looked at him like “what do you think, I’m stupid or something?’ And then Mike says ‘I’ve got it in the back’ Then the guy says ‘you’ve got the Stanley Cup in the back of that SUV?’ Mike says ‘yeah’. Then the guy says ‘pull over and bring it in.’

So we parked out in front and brought it in. By that time, the guy had already left the window, gone inside and everyone in the place knows that the Stanley Cup is coming through the front door. So we come in and then he says to us “c’mon, we’ve got a plan.” So we all got onto an elevator, went up to the second floor and there’s a balcony in the U.S. Customs area in Sweetgrass, Montana that you could stand with one leg in Canada and one leg in the U.S. So they sit the Cup so it splits the line there and then all these U.S. immigration people are up there taking their pictures with the Cup. And they’re no different than a class of ten-year-olds getting their pictures taken with the Stanley Cup. Plus, they get on the phone and you can see this balcony from the Canadian side. And they holler out at the guys over there and said ‘take a look out the window and see what we’ve got’. You could see the Stanley Cup up there (in the balcony). So all of a sudden, here come all of these Canadians running towards the border. I don’t know how long we spent there with everyone getting their pictures taken. Finally that was all done. Then we drove out of Sweetgrass and started up the hill and there’s the sign that says, “Welcome to Montana”. So we pulled over to the side of the road. We pop the lid of the box that the Cup is in and get it out. We walked through this knee-high grass, through the ditch and up on the edge. Then Mike says ‘take my picture first.’ So he’s holding the Cup under the sign and we take his picture. Then he says “Now John you take a hold of it and get under there and we’ll take your picture.’ So as we’re doing all of this, this big 18-wheeler goes by and his (the driver’s) head turns and he sees the Cup. Well then, here comes another big 18-wheeler, and he just pulls over to the side of the road and stops maybe four feet from us. Then the guy jumps out and asks ‘is that the Stanley Cup?’ then Mike says ‘yeah’. Right away this guys asks ‘can I hold it? Can I get my picture taken with it?’ Of course Mike’s very accommodating. So here’s this guy standing in front of his truck holding the Stanley Cup getting his picture taken. He was just beside himself with excitement that this has happened. So we had a great time with it. We really did. It was fun to have it there.”

With all of his success, John MacMillan remains humble and grounded. He is genuine with a gentle humor. And he is also one of the most personable individuals that you could ever meet. Now approaching his mid-70’s, MacMillan is still as passionate and enthusiastic about hockey as he probably was the first time he ever laced up a pair of skates. Whether it’s stories and recollections about his wonderful family or the game that he loves, he will always share them with a smile.

Johnny Mac often describes his life experiences as incredible.

Well, Johnny Mac himself is pretty incredible too.

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