The Detroit Red Wings saw history made several ways during the 1983-84 season. Eighteen-year-old Steve Yzerman debuted, marking the start of the city’s hockey renaissance. Also that year, the NHL introduced regular-season overtime as a way of injecting excitement into the high number of tied games. On October 5, 1983, Detroit and Winnipeg played the league’s first regular-season OT game since 1942, settling for a 6-6 tie.
And finally, Brian Johnson, a tough 23-year-old right winger from Montreal, became only the eighth black to play in the NHL in its long history and the first ever for Detroit.
Johnson didn’t consider himself a pioneer, though attitudes towards black players hadn’t changed much since Boston Bruins forward Willie O’Ree first cracked the all-alabaster NHL during the 1957-58 season. When Johnson played in exhibition games at The Joe, one beligerent fan wanted to know, “Why aren’t you playing basketball?” Some opponents called him “nigger.” Even a Red Wings teammate couldn’t resist saying, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” when the locker-room conversation turned to food.
The Wings, coached by Nick Polano, liked Johnson’s roughhouse style. Johnson was considered the prototypical enforcer, garnering six goals and 250 penalty minutes in 67 American Hockey League games for Adirondack in 1982-83. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound policeman maintained that the slurs and needling didn’t bother him.
“As long as they call me names, it means I’m doing something right,” he said. “It’s 1983. Racial problems are going to be around in the year 2000. I try to better myself. If a person uses racial slurs, he’s a small person. He has no class. I try to overcome that. If it’s a player, I don’t get mad, I get even. Even if it takes me all year.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, he didn’t stick around that long. The rookie went pointless and racked up one major penalty in three games before being sent back to the minors for good.
Johnson retired after the 1985-86 season, the same year a 20-year-old Windsor native named Bob Probert pulled on a Wings jersey bearing Johnson’s number 24. Beyond the similarity in playing style, both men would struggle with drug problems and run-ins with the law. In April 2012, Johnson was sentenced to four years in prison after being found in possession of nearly half a kilo of cocaine.