This didn't make the cut for my book about the brawl between Canada and the USSR at the 1987 World Junior tournament. It's a story that has become part of scouting lore. This is just the rough draft, so forgive the over-stylized stuff.
Imagine what the scouts get up to on a day with no hockey far from home. “There is one thing,” says Inge Hammarstrom, a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers. “Something with Marshall. But I’m not sure that you can know about it.”
Ask other scouts about Marshall Johnston. Marshall Johnston had put in years for Father David Bauer and Canada’s national team back in the 60s. He had dressed in more European arenas than some of the younger scouts visit in their entire career. It had been a long way from Saskatchewan of his youth to Europe in his prime, but over the course of years Johnston developed a sense of comfort there. He went to Piestany as the chief amateur scout for the New Jersey Devils. Going to Piestany to work the 1987 world juniors was no hardship for him. It was familiar territory for him. He knew the drill. Decent accommodations in the spa, excellent when compared to other towns behind the Iron Curtain. Company of friends in he scouting ranks to spend time with over the holidays. “It didn’t really jump out,” Johnston says. “I thought it was gonna be good hockey and a good time.”
Understand what Johnston means when he says “a good time.” The scouting fraternity looked at Marshall Johnston as one of its wise men. He was regarded as one of the best at background checks, plumbing the history and character of players whose skill moves them up the prospect rankings. Scouting’s detective work. He was not only liked but well-liked, as Willy Loman intended. This might have struck you as odd, because Johnston was be gruff at times and seemingly uneasy in the presence of strangers. An expert on people but seemingly not so comfortable around them Yet among his friends he was as predictable as train departures: loyal, truthful if not particularly exciting or excitable. That was part of his appeal to his fellow scouts—those who were a little too exciting or excitable frequently needed a sober ride home or someone to calmly bail them out of a beef with a soldier who didn’t speak English.
Follow Johnston down to the dining room on New Year’s Eve. “A bunch of us went to dinner at our hotel,” Johnston says. “It was a special holiday buffet. They laid out this huge spread for us. Not much salad or vegetables mind you. Lots of meat and potatoes. And there was this pig, laid out on the table, with its head intact. It had an apple in its mouth. I know a lot of guys had trouble looking at it, I guess. But I was hungry. It wasn’t anything to make me lose my appetite. So I just dug in.
“A couple of guys gave it to me about how much I ate—how many trips I made back for more pork, but like I say it was a buffet and I was gonna get my money’s worth. I had a couple of drinks but nothing more than that. It was New Year’s but I have my routine. So sometime after midnight I turn in and leave some of the other guys at the party who are getting pretty lit. I go to my room, lock the door, get into bed and fall asleep. I’m a deep sleeper.
“In the morning I woke up. I looked at the pillow beside me. There was the pig’s head with the apple still in it.”
Look at Johnston’s expression. No change. Still in its default deadpan mode. Not shock. Not a smile cracking the plaster. His friends who were in the prank hoped that the pig’s head would be not just an homage to The Godfather but enough to, well, flap the otherwise unflappable Johnston. It failed. They might as well have left a wrapped chocolate on the pillow. “To tell the truth, I didn’t have much of a reaction at all. I didn’t scream or anything, if that’s what you mean. I got up and took the head off the pillow and put it in the trash. Then I had to figure out how they did it. After all my room was locked and bolted. And my room was up on the fifth floor. It wasn’t like they could climb in a window.
“My room did have a balcony though. And there was a bit more than five feet, maybe six or seven feet between balconies. It wasn’t much of a jump, I guess, but if you missed you’d fall to your death. You’d be as dead as the pig you were holding. Right away I figured out who did the jump—it had to be this part-time scout, a Czech guy, that Barry Fraser hired to work for the Oilers. He might have been the only one young enough and sober enough to do it. So that means Barry Fraser had to know about it—the part-timer would do something like that to keep his job but he’d never do it if he thought it would piss off his boss. I wanted to find out who the other guys were, so there was only one way.
Appreciate that a scout keeps scouting, just a matter of character. The scouts had lifted that scene from The Godfather, the head of the racehorse Khartoum in bed next to Moe Green. The next morning Johnston borrowed a strategy straight from an episode of Columbo. “I went down to breakfast and I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t react in any way. I wasn’t really rattled or mad anyway, but I decided that this was the best way to get back at them. Y’know, if I don’t say anything the guys who did it might have thought that they got the wrong room by mistake. But really the longer I went pretending nothing had happened, just acting dumb, the more I knew exactly who was in on it. They might be able to pretend that they weren’t guilty but they couldn’t hide the fact that they were waiting for me to react.”
Pump the scouts. Many were there but none will ever claim to be the mastermind behind the prank. Or the one that followed a couple of years later, when another pig’s head surfaced when Marshall Johnston woke up from a deep sleep in another hotel room at another world junior tournament. This time he walked into his bathroom and lifted the toilet seat only to find a pig’s head staring up at him. “I thought about finding another apple and taking it down to breakfast and taking a big bite out of it. Couldn’t find one.”