Rangers' Ching Johnson: Late Bloomer
For a man who never played competitive hockey until he was 21, Ivan “Ching” Johnson managed to make an excellent Hall of Fame career for himself with the Rangers.
A Winnipeg native, Johnson spent three years in the trenches during World War I before returning home to work for an electric light company. After one year with a Winnipeg senior amateur team, he moved south to Minnesota, playing six years there before finally being recruited to play for the brand new New York Rangers at age 28.
No matter where he played, he was popular with fans and teammates alike and famous for the constant grin on his face during games. A defenceman with one of the hardest bodychecks in the game, Johnson punished his own body nearly as much his opponents. In his first season with the Rangers, he finished second in PIMs (66), despite having played only 27 of the season's 44 games due to a broken collar bone.
The next year, Johnson was second only to Eddie Shore in penalty minutes, leading his team with 146. For eight of his seasons with the Rangers, he led the team in penalty minutes; he suffered a broken ankle and a jaw fractured in four places, both times returning in time to help his team in the playoffs, even though he had to wear a steel mask to protect his jaw.
Nicknamed “Ching” by fans for his perceived Asian appearance and “Ivan the Terrible” by opposing teams, Johnson was no one-dimensional player. The same year he led the team in penalty minutes (1927-28), he contributed 10 goals (in an era when defencemen were not expected to contribute any offence) and helped the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup. With defensive partner “Taffy” Abel, they smothered the Maroons offense in a series that saw both teams combine for 11 goals total in a 5 game series.
Johnson also scored the key first goal in the Stanley Cup Final against the Leafs in 1933. This time, he and defensive partner Earl Siebert controlled play in their zone almost flawlessly: Johnson would knock the player off the puck and slide it to Siebert (the faster of the two) to launch the offensive. Johnson's defensive capabilities were widely credited as key to the team's second Cup.
The New York Hockey Writers Association voted him the most valuable New York player in 1928, and he seemed to be a perpetual Hart candidate. Beginning with the 1930-31 season, Johnson was named to the All-Star team four years running, and in 1932 lost the Hart Trophy to Howie Morenz by one vote. Johnson was such an admired defenceman that he was also invited to play in the first ever NHL All-Star game, a benefit for Toronto's Ace Bailey, in 1934.
Prior to his final season with the Rangers, he signed on to be their defensive coach while still playing. However, after 35 games, no points and limited ice time, Johnson had had enough and requested an outright release from the team. He moved to the other New York team, the Americans, for one more season before retiring at age 41 in 1938.
He didn't stay retired for long, as he went back to semi-pro and senior amateur hockey and played several more years for Minneapolis, Marquette, Washington and Hollywood. After a brief stint coaching, Johnson became a referee in the Eastern Hockey League, where he forgot what his role on ice was, and bodychecked one of the players during a game.
His twelve year career produced 436 regular season games, 38 goals, 48 assists, 86 points and 808 penalty minutes. His playoff stats were 61 playoff games, 5 goals, 2 assists, 7 points and 161 penalty minutes, two Stanley Cups and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.