Hockey DayP.E.I.'s Billy McMillan has a unique story
By Tim Wharnsby
Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 | 08:16 AMBack to accessibility links
Billy MacMillan got his name etched on the Stanley Cup for his work as an assistant coach with the 1979-80 New York Islanders. (Martyn Bailey/CBC Sports)
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The annual Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada will celebrate Prince Edward Island on Saturday. The land of Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and Stompin' Tom Connors may be the smallest province in Canada, but its hockey tradition is rich and full of characters. From visits by St. Dunstan's University to the national championship to NHL success from pioneers like Forbes Kennedy Billy MacMillan and Errol Thompson to current NHLers Mark Flood, Adam McQuaid and Brad Richards, PEI has a proud hockey past. Richards celebrated the Stanley Cup with the locals in 2004 after his Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL championship. McQuaid followed suite seven summers later with his victorious Boston Bruins. This week cbcsports.ca senior hockey writer Tim Wharnsby will compile a series of stories on PEI hockey. This instalment takes a look at Billy MacMillan's excellent hockey adventure.
CHARLOTTETOWN -- He had a dream to play in the NHL as soon as he was old enough to watch Hockey Night in Canada. The blueprint to achieve this reverie was hatched one day when he opened up the old Weekend Magazine.
"I was about 11 or 12 and one day I opened up the magazine to read the centre page column by Andy O'Brien," said Billy MacMillan, who turns 69 on Mar. 7. "There were 40 pictures of NHL players. All of them went to St. Mike's. So that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to play for St. Mike's."
MacMillan did just that. After working his way through the Charlottetown minor hockey system, he was summoned to Toronto in 1959 to play for St. Michael's College at age 16.
Even though he split time that first season between the St. Mike's junior A and B teams, MacMillan wound up playing in four consecutive OHA J. Ross Robertson Cup finals, winning the Memorial Cup in 1960-61 with Father David Bauer as his coach.
The fourth consecutive trip to the league final was with the Neil McNeil Maroons, the school that absorbed some of the St. Mike's players after it ceased its junior A program in 1962.
MacMillan appeared on his way to the NHL. But after he attended training camp for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fall of 1963, Maple Leafs boss Punch Imlach made MacMillan an offer -- a salary of $4,300 -- that he refused.
Instead, he returned home to begin his studies at St. Dunstan's College. Education had always been important to his family, and became even more important when his father passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack at the young age of 38. Billy was 12 and one of five McMillan boys (his younger brother Bob also played in the NHL and currently scouts for the Calgary Flames).
Billy played two seasons at St. Dunstan's and went to the national final in Winnipeg in 1965. It was later that year that Father Bauer called to see if his old junior player would meet him in Moncton. There, Father Bauer offered a Canadian national team roster spot and an opportunity to continue his education at the University of Manitoba, the same school that beat St. Dunstan's in the national final.
MacMillan enjoyed four seasons with the national team, including a bronze-medal effort at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France.
"That was such a good experience to travel, get an education and play a high level of hockey," said MacMillan, who earned a bachelor of arts degree. "We had a good team. We just struggled offensively."
The experience also earned him another offer from the Maple Leafs. This time, he agreed to Toronto's tender and made his NHL debut at age 27. MacMillan wound up enjoying 446 games in seven NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs, Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders.
"I was fortunate in Toronto to playing on a line with Dave Keon," MacMillan said.
With his time in the NHL winding down, the Islanders saw a future coach in MacMillan. They enticed him to take a player/coach role with their farm team in Forth Worth, Texas. He was named winner of the Jack Milford Trophy as the Central Hockey League coach of the year in 1977-78, and Fort Worth won the championship.
A couple seasons later he was promoted to the Islanders as an assistant coach and was beside Al Arbour when the club won its first of four consecutive Stanley Cups in 1980.
Shortly after the championship celebration, MacMillan was hired to replace Don Cherry as head coach of the Colorado Rockies. He held that position for the Rockies' final season in Denver and two more after the franchise moved to New Jersey, where he also became the Devils' general manager and coached his brother Bob.
After Bill's days in New Jersey ended, he returned home to P.E.I., and wound up coaching at the University of Prince Edward Island, whose team he steered to the University Cup final four in 1990-91. However, they lost in the national semifinals.
"I was so proud of the fact that team had 15 players from Prince Edward Island on it," said MacMillan, who now runs Oak Tree Liquor store in Charlottetown. "Shane MacEachern was one of the best players in the country that year."
From Charlottetown to St. Mike's to St. Dunstan's to the national team to the NHL and back to the Island, Billy MacMillan's story is truly unique.
"It is a unique story, but I guess everyone has a unique story," McMillan said.
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