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On Second Thought

The words of Johnny Peirson shaped a generation of Bruins fans

Johnny Peirson (left) was the analyst while Fred Cusick handled the play-by-play for the Bruins starting in 1969.Courtesy Andy Emslie

Through the 1970s, ’80s, and into the mid-’90s, with hockey at times hotter around here than sparks spitting off a motorized skate sharpener, Johnny Peirson was the smart, ever polite uncle figure who explained it all for Bruins fans.

He was the consummate, keen-eyed analyst, for years Fred Cusick’s sidekick, able to observe the action on the ice, then instantly dissect it with astonishing, near-forensic accuracy.

Peirson could spot detail no one else could, then explain it in simple yet exacting terms, transforming our family rooms into the virtual classrooms of our times. Albeit with a UHF antenna, best rigged with clumps of tinfoil, required to snag the Ch. 38 broadcast signal.

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“They were like tutorials,” said Richard Johnson, longtime curator of the Sports Museum. “The cartoon image would be John, the college professor in front of his class, a mortar board atop his head, and wearing a pair of skates.”

Peirson, who was also a two-time NHL All-Star during his 10-plus years as a Bruins right winger in the 1940s and ’50s, died April 16 at his home in Wayland. He was 95.

According to Andy Emslie, his stepgrandson, Peirson suffered a stroke days earlier. He passed with Barbara, his wife of 70 years, and other family members at his bedside.

Even some of the most ardent Bruins fans, who first learned his name for his broadcast work, weren’t aware that Peirson played in the NHL. Born in Winnipeg, he was 10 when his family moved to Montreal in 1935, and he was 18 when he became a member the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1943-44.

After serving in the Canadian armed services in Europe in World War II, Peirson played one season at McGill, helping the august Montreal university win the Queens Cup (Senior Intercollegiate Hockey League) in 1945-46, before signing his first pro contract with Boston. He spent most of his first two pro seasons at AHL Hershey before catching on full time with the Bruins in the fall of ’48 .

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Peirson went on to collect 326 points in 544 games, a scoring rate along the lines of current Bruins right winger Craig Smith.

“Good player, smart, efficient . . . and a good, good man,” said Eddie Sandford, 92, who sometimes played left side on the same line with Peirson. “John was solid. Let me tell you, if we had more like John, we probably would have done better.”

Johnny Peirson with the Bruins in 1948.Boston Globe Archive/The Boston Globe

Cusick, who eventually became Ch. 38′s signature Bruins play-by-play man, was hired by WBZ radio to start calling Bruins games beginning with the 1969-70 Stanley Cup season. More than 10 years earlier for CBS, Cusick interviewed Peirson for a feature about hockey sticks, which Cusick remembered when WBZ general manager Jim Lightfoot asked him for names of a would-be radio analyst.

“I recommended Peirson,” Cusick wrote decades later in his book, “Fred Cusick Voice of the Bruins,” “and he got the job without an audition.”

The following year, Peirson was hired away by Ch. 38 to work as Don Earle’s color analyst. When Earle was wooed away the next year by the Flyers, WSBK hired away Cusick at its play-by-play guy, reuniting him with Peirson.

It was game on . . . and classroom open.

Peter May, who for years covered the Celtics and NBA for the Globe, knew Peirson in a different light. May (Wellesley High School class of 1969) was the school’s senior goalie when Coach Peirson took over the WHS bench.

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“Such a nice, dignified man,” recalled May. “And fast on his skates, oh my gosh! He could skate faster going backwards than any of us could skate forward. I only wish we’d been better. We weren’t very good. Wellesley lost a lot of good players to the private schools, but that had nothing to do with John.”

According to Emslie, Peirson coached WHS for only two years, then left to concentrate on his dual professions — as a manufacturer’s rep in the furniture business and his work in the Bruins’ broadcast booth. The furniture job often took Peirson out of broadcast action for a week or more each spring. He couldn’t miss the annual big furniture convention in High Point, N.C.

“It’s sort of family lore,” explained Emslie, “that the coaching was kind of hard on him. He knew the game, the rules . . . and . . . ”

The refereeing, apparently, wasn’t quite up to Peirson’s exacting standards.

“He’d be back there, yelling at the refs, I guess,” noted Emslie. “He wouldn’t go too far . . . but he had this move where he’d swing out on the bench door, feet never touching the ice, and let ‘em have it.”

“Hey, I can imagine,” said Nate Greenberg, the Bruins’ longtime PR executive, now retired. “He was a stickler for the rulebook. Knew it inside out . . . better, Fred often said, than a lot of the refs and linesmen.”

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Jack Edwards, NESN’s voice of the Bruins, grew up in Durham, N.H., hanging on the words of Cusick and Peirson.

“John was really a teacher of the game,” noted Edwards. “He realized he was in a pioneering position. He was so good with his teaching methods. If you listened to John, you learned . . . and the more you learned, the more passionate you got about hockey.”

Longtime Ch. 25 morning anchor Gene Lavanchy also was among the Cusick-Peirson devotees as a kid growing up in Walpole in the ’70s and ’80s. In his neighborhood, recalled Lavanchy, they sometimes would stop in the middle of street hockey games and launch into narratives impersonating Peirson dissecting a goal or a botched play.

“One of us would be Fred,” recalled Lavanchy, “and one of us would be Johnny. Big part of my childhood.”

By the late ’80s, Lavanchy was Ch. 38′s in-studio host for Bruins games and his partner was Peirson, host of the “Peirson’s Pointers” segment between periods. The Peirson he’d admired on TV was every bit the sharp, gentlemanly good soul he’d watched all those years. The entire studio staff, he said, loved being around the low-key, unassuming furniture rep/hockey analyst.

“The man loved the wrist shot, right?” said Lavanchy, recalling that Peirson advocated incessantly for wrist shots over slappers. Who could argue with Professor Peirson?

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Lorna Luke worked aside Peirson during his Ch. 38 intermission segments. She was the WSBK staffer charged with coordinating the Telestrator.

“Watch it right here!” said Lavanchy, imitating Peirson on the Telestrator, operated by Luke. “You see him pull the puck back . . . now hold it right there, Lorna! . . . you can see here he points his front skate toward the net, which gives him the angle, and then the fulcrum of the stick on the wrist shot allows him to lift the puck just enough . . . for a Boston goal.”

The family planned a private memorial for Peirson in Wellesley. The unique, beloved analyst has been put to rest, his words long to echo through New England.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.