No player on the Big, Bad Bruins of the late 1960s and early ’70s hated to lose more than right winger Johnny “Pie” McKenzie.
“He was one of the most competitive guys I ever played with,” said star center Phil Esposito. “He’d go out there and do anything to wake us all up, and he was one mean little SOB who would go through a wall for his teammates. Pie was on the small side, but he really knew how to take care of himself.”
On a line with center Fred Stanfield and left wing Johnny Bucyk, Mr. McKenzie helped spark the Bruins to Stanley Cup championships in 1970 and ’72, and in both years he scored more than a point per game in the postseason.
“I like to take a run at somebody on my first shift just to stir things up and plant the idea that if a squirt like me can go after ’em — particularly if my target is a big star – then why not everybody?” he once told interviewer Andy O’Brien.
Mr. McKenzie, who played seven of his 12 National Hockey League seasons with the Bruins and was a second team NHL All-Star in 1970, died Saturday at his home in Wakefield. He was 80. No cause of death was released.
In 454 games with the Bruins, he recorded five straight seasons of 20 or more goals, including a career-high 31 in 1970-71, and had 169 goals, 227 assists, and 710 penalty minutes.
Bruins teammate and goalie Gerry Cheevers said that Mr. McKenzie, “more than any of us, would do something timely — out of the ordinary — if we were in a little funk.”
Cheevers, who sat next to Mr. McKenzie in the Bruins’ dressing room, said he had both a quick wrist shot and a quick wit.
“He was always putting me on,” said Harry Sinden, a former Bruins head coach and executive. “After we’d go through a tough practice, Pie would lie on the ice and kick his feet like a baby throwing a tantrum, which would break us up. He was a great spark who had all the skills and helped turn the Bruins around.”
Mr. McKenzie also played for the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Black Hawks, and New York Rangers but didn’t blossom as an NHL player until the Rangers traded him to the Bruins midway through the 1965-66 season.
He was fortunate to be playing at all. Mr. McKenzie underwent surgery to have his spleen removed during the 1963-64 season after being checked by two Toronto Maple Leafs players, but he returned to the ice for Chicago before season’s end.
“He made a great comeback,” Bucyk said. “Pie never really had a chance to show what he could do until he got here. But I could see he was a little fireball and a fast skater, a battler, and a scrapper who fit right in.”
Bucyk said he and Mr. McKenzie were the forecheckers who could win battles in the corners, and Stanfield’s strength was as a passer and backchecker. “We always talked a lot about strategy and what our roles were,” Bucyk added, “and we really jelled.”
Mr. McKenzie also was “just terrific” on a Bruins’ power play, said Esposito, who added that “people sometimes forget he was the right wing on the first unit with Johnny Bucyk and myself — with Bobby Orr and Fred Stanfield at the points.”
A son of Malcolm McKenzie and the former Melba McKinnon, John Albert McKenzie was once a rodeo rider in his native Alberta. A junior hockey player in Canada, he led the Ontario Hockey Association in goals and points in 1957-58 and debuted with the Black Hawks in the 1958-1959 season.
In an interview published by the Hockey Hall of Fame website, Mr. McKenzie explained how he got his nickname. In Canada, there was a chocolate bar called Pie Face. “The logo had a little, wee body with a larger head,” Mr. McKenzie recalled, and a teammate once told him: “ ‘Gee, you look like that Pie Face.’ So that’s how it started.”
A popular bumper sticker among Bruins fans read: “No matter how you slice it, Pie is the greatest,” according to the blog greatesthockeylegends.com.
In 1971, Mr. McKenzie was limited to two goals in seven games when the Bruins were upset by the Canadiens in the first round, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. An X-ray revealed that he had played with a fractured skull, which he suffered in the first game.
Mr. McKenzie shrugged off the injury. “It really wasn’t much as skull fractures go,” he said, according to NHL.com. “Just a little bone where the nose is hooked onto the forehead. It was unhooked.’’
The 1972 Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and Rangers was an emotional time for Mr. McKenzie. With a 3-1 lead going into Game 5, Boston was poised to end the series at Boston Garden, but lost, 3-2.
“My dad was quite ill and in a wheelchair, but he made it to Boston from Calgary and I was hoping that we’d win it here. I told him that if we did, I’d throw him in the shower” Mr. McKenzie recalled in a 1987 Globe interview.
His father arrived wearing a Bruins jacket and old pants so he wouldn’t ruin any good clothes if they got soaked. “I’m sorry we didn’t win it in Boston for two reasons — our fans and my dad,” said Mr. McKenzie, who added that his father “drank from the Cup a few days later” when the Bruins won Game 6 in Madison Square Garden. His father, he said, “died the following year.”
Before the 1973 season, Mr. McKenzie signed on as player-coach with the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association. He finished his WHA and pro career in 1979 with the Hartford-based New England Whalers, where his teammates included the legendary Gordie Howe.
“He may be small, but he’s got an 8-pound heart,” Howe said of Mr. McKenzie in a 1978 Globe interview.
“Never have I seen a better competitor,” said Howe, who added: “He just loves the game.”
Years past the rodeos of his youth, Mr. McKenzie “could still ride a horse like Roy Rogers,” said Cheevers, who laughingly recalled playing in a celebrity polo match with him at Myopia Hunt Club.
After retiring from hockey, Mr. McKenzie held a series of jobs, including building supply sales, banking, and auto sales. He briefly kept his hand in hockey a decade ago as liaison for hockey development at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He also had been head coach for the Berklee College of Music IceCats, volunteering for the position after reading a media account about the team not having a coach.
Mr. McKenzie’s two marriages ended in divorce.
Funeral services will be private for Mr. McKenzie, who leaves his life partner, Beth Romanelli of Wakefield; five daughters, Bette of Wakefield, Jackie Curran of Attleboro, Lori of Wilmington, Amy McInerney of North Reading, and Megan of Arlington, Va.; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
According to Beth, Mr. McKenzie requested that his brain be donated to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
After winning NHL championships, Mr. McKenzie wore his Stanley Cup rings the rest of his life. The Whalers retired his No. 19 uniform after the 1978-79 season.
“I loved the way Johnny McKenzie played and I felt by retiring his number it would set an example for every other player in our organization,” said former Whalers owner Howard Baldwin. “There were other players with better stats, but none with more joy for the game.”Marvin Pave can be reached at email@example.com.