Legendary skating instructor embracing ‘Dragon Lady’ reputation after 15 years in a dark place

Val Johnston still making kids miserable — and better — on the ice

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During the 1970s, power-skating guru Val Johnston was hired by the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association to run high-tempo practices for the squad's rookie players.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2015 (2489 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

During the 1970s, power-skating guru Val Johnston was hired by the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association to run high-tempo practices for the squad’s rookie players.

In the ’80s, Johnston hosted her own television program on CKY-TV — a half-hour show called Dragon Lady Hockey School — “Dragon Lady” being the tag the no-nonsense mother of two adopted after learning members of a high school team she helped coach had been calling her that behind her back. Johnston continued conducting clinics throughout Manitoba and as far north as Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, until she was diagnosed with cancer in 2000.

“I am a cancer survivor, but like (speed skater) Clara Hughes, I also suffered a time with depression,” says Johnston, who turns 70 in a couple of days.

“A lot of us who get depressed turn to pills or booze. Mine was wine. I didn’t drink every day but it was a problem. Bottom line is I lost my car, I lost my house…”

Three years ago, Johnston’s late father appeared to her in the middle of the night, while she was tossing and turning, trying to fall asleep. She could see his face and feel his presence, she says, noting she took the visit as a warning: shape up or prepare to join him.

“That very moment I told myself, ‘Val, you’re either to going to get out of here or you’re not going to make it.’ “

A few weeks later, Johnston dug out her hockey gear and returned to what she does best.

Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press
Val Johnston, aka “Dragon Lady” the 70-year-old skating coach at Billy Mosienko Arena.

Tim Banera is leaning up against the glass at the Billy Mosienko Arena, watching his son, Noah, his nephew, Dane, and a dozen other youngsters trying to perform a crossover exercise as demonstrated by Johnston.

Noah started playing hockey two years ago, his dad says. During that initial season, Banera overheard other parents discussing “this Dragon Lady woman” in almost mythical terms. The gist of their comments was when it comes to teaching kids how to manoeuvre around a sheet of ice, she’s as good as it gets.

“A mother of one of the kids I coached trained with Val years ago and one day she said, ‘C’mon out, you won’t be sorry,’ ” Banera says. “We tried it and it was fantastic. The edge work she does, the backward skating drills… this is Noah’s second camp with her and there’s definitely been a vast improvement (in his skating) already.”

Johnston grew up in Selkirk. She was 10 when her mother took her to see four-time Canadian figure skating champion and 1948 Olympic gold medallist Barbara Ann Scott at Shea’s Amphitheatre, a 5,000-seat arena near the site now occupied by the Great-West Life Assurance Company.

“She was so pretty and blond and could skate so well,” Johnston says, running her hand through her short grey hair. “I remember saying to my mom on the way out, ‘I’m going to be just like her.'”

Johnston’s parents were poor, she states matter-of-factly, but because her mother could “stretch a buck from here to Hong Kong,” she was allowed to sign up for figure-skating lessons.

“I was a very powerful skater right from the get-go,” says Johnston, who also played shinny with neighbourhood kids on an outdoor rink built by her father. “There’d be 25 or 30 of us every night; somebody would throw something on the ice that resembled a puck and away we’d go, for hours on end. That’s where I really learned to skate.”

In 1973, Johnston was teaching power-skating classes to children at various community clubs around Winnipeg. One morning, she was approached by Gerry Brisson, owner of the Winnipeg Clubs, a Western Canada Hockey League squad boasting a lineup that included Kevin McCarthy, future captain of the Vancouver Canucks, and Doug Wilson, current general manager of the San Jose Sharks.

Brisson told Johnston his junior team was talented but lacked discipline. And that he’d heard she was “the toughest of the lot.”

Johnston chuckles when she’s asked if she remembers the first time she stepped on the ice with the Clubs.

“The players weren’t much younger than me and I figured I was either going to sink or swim,” she says, flipping through a scrapbook packed with newspaper clippings about many of the big leaguers she worked with through the years. (“There’s Bobby with his bad hair,” she says, pointing at a photo of the Golden Jet.)

Practice started off smoothly, Johnston recalls, but at about the 15-minute mark, a goalie “who shall go unnamed” grumbled the “b-word” under his breath, after a particularly tough set of repetitions. Johnston immediately blew her whistle, called the team to centre ice and told everybody to take a knee.

“What he didn’t realize was that I have ears like a hawk. So I moved through the ranks until I was standing directly in front of him,” Johnston says.

The netminder looked up at Johnston and muttered, “I didn’t say anything.”

“I answered back, ‘I didn’t say you did,’ but right there, the rest of the guys knew I had him dead to rights. Then I announced to everybody I wasn’t there to win a popularity contest. And that I didn’t care what they called me, as long as they could spell it right.”

“Funny story about these,” Johnston says when a reporter asks how long she’s owned her skates, which look to be held together with hope, prayers and duct tape.

“They were custom-built for me by a Swedish company called Wifa — they’re as wide as they are long — and I’ve had them for over 50 years. When I was doing my TV show in the ’80s, Peter Young was the host. He was all flash and dash back then; the first day we started filming he pointed at my skates and said, ‘You’re going to get rid of those, right?’ “

Johnston won’t repeat her comeback to Young but admits it was two words — and the second one was “off.”

“I seem to remember the first word being ‘buzz,’ ” snickers Young, the sports director at CKY-TV (now CTV Winnipeg) until 1999. “The show was sponsored by CCM and we were supposed to wear CCM skates, but Val was determined to wear her own. That was OK, I guess, because they made really good skates in the 1800s.” 

Young met Johnston for the first time in the 1970s, when he was covering the WHA Jets.

“I remember watching her work with (former Jets captain) Lars-Erik Sjberg after he tore his Achilles and, man, could she skate,” says Young, who also signed his son Branden up for lessons with Johnston. “I mean, she could do things half the WHA and NHL guys playing then would have loved to have been able to do.”

Young considered himself lucky to be the MC of Johnston’s show — and not one of the participants.

“I used to play old-timers hockey at the Highlander (now Canlan Ice Sports on Ellice Avenue) and quite often before our games, Val was on the ice with power-skating groups before us. We’d sit in the stands and watch her skate these kids into the dirt. She didn’t get the name Dragon Lady because she was Little Lord Fauntleroy, that’s for sure.”

Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press
Val Johnston, aka “Dragon Lady”

Johnston gets a kick out of the looks she gets from some of her charges, when they realize a woman old enough to be their grandmother is the person who’s going to teach them how to skate like the wind.

“The other day I fell flat on my duff and some of the kids were horrified,” she says. “I told ’em not to worry cause I’m made of rubber.”

Rubber or not, Johnston knows the day is coming when she’ll have trouble lacing ’em up four times a week, three or four hours a day. But that doesn’t bother her in the least, she says.

“I have way bigger fish to fry. Basically what I want to do is build a hockey haven outside the city with an arena complex for kids who have gone asunder.”

In the 1990s, Johnston, who didn’t have a clue she is Métis until her father died and left documentation behind, travelled to Alabama to visit a place called Big Oak Ranch. She fell in love with the idea of a recreation facility aimed specifically at underprivileged youth.

“It doesn’t even have to be hockey,” she says. “It could have a swimming pool, a soccer pitch — whatever. But it would be a place to teach kids old-fashioned values and get them off the street, the way that outdoor rink did when I was a kid.

“People say we can’t afford to do it, but I say we can’t afford not to do it.”

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Sunday, October 25, 2015 8:30 PM CDT: Tweaks headline.

Updated on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 12:52 PM CDT: Changes location of Shea's Amphitheatre.

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