Exemplary OCT

Governor General David Johnston's

Remarkable Teacher Cooney Weiland

by Bill Harris

It's hard to imagine how education could be more important in the life and career of Canada’s Governor General, David Johnston.

“I could name 100 teachers, mentors and coaches who have influenced my life quite profoundly,” says Johnston, who has held high-ranking administrative and faculty positions at the University of Waterloo, McGill University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Toronto and Queen’s University.

“In my installation speech [as Governor General] on October 1st [2010], which was entitled A Smart and Caring Nation: A Call to Service, I said, ‘If you remember only three words from what I say today, here are the words: Cherish our teachers.’ ”

Teachers come in many forms. And considering that alongside Johnston’s academic resumé is an impressive athletic history, it’s no surprise that the teacher Johnston singles out has a direct connection to Canada’s favourite sport.

“I was at Harvard University and I played football and hockey there. The hockey coach was a great influence on me and his name was Cooney Weiland.

“He grew up in Seaforth and played in the National Hockey League. In fact, he was the leading scorer for the Boston Bruins and the leading scorer in the NHL in the very early 1930s.”

Ralph “Cooney” Weiland died in 1985 at age 80, and Johnston gave a eulogy at his funeral.

“What I said was, ‘When the history of this institution is written in 100 years, historians will look back on it as a powerful influence for good in the world. Why is that so? It’s because of outstanding teachers, and we honour one today, the hockey coach.’ ”

Johnston’s path to Harvard – and subsequently to the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University – began in Sudbury, where he was born, and Sault Ste. Marie, where he grew up.

He loved school and, to end up at Harvard, was obviously good at it. But it was his hockey-playing prowess that brought him into contact with coach Weiland. Johnston was the Harvard squad captain and a Harvard Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was twice selected for the All-America team in the early 1960s.

“He was a great teacher of what I call the beautiful game. But he also was a great teacher of the beautiful game of life,” says Johnston.

“He never gave us pep talks as we went out to start a game. He would say, ‘I’ve only got a Grade 10 education, and you guys are at Harvard. If you’ve listened to what I’ve been telling you during the week, you’re going to go out and do it.’ ”

Weiland may have cleverly referenced his Grade 10 education as a motivational tool, but when listening to Johnston describe Weiland’s approach to coaching, it sure sounds as if the coach was several decades ahead of his time.

“He taught what today we would call the New Jersey trap – I call it a game of mismatch,” says Johnston. “It required each of us to play at the level of our individual skill, but doing that with a great consciousness of the other five players on the ice. And always working in a degree of harmony with them while having a degree of spontaneity. That gets very intellectual for the game of hockey, but he taught it well.”

Indeed, that’s a lot to think about when you’re making split-second decisions on the ice. So how was Cooney Weiland able to convey those approaches and theories in a usable way?

“He was a great teacher. He knew his subject matter well. He had passion about it. He related to the whole person he was teaching, and he inspired us,” says Johnston. “We never wanted to let him down.”


“He was a great teacher of what I call the beautiful game. But he also was a great teacher of the beautiful game of life,” says Governor General David Johnston of his remarkable teacher, Harvard coach Cooney Weiland, shown here in 1970.

Johnston went on to a career in academics. He kept in touch with Weiland in subsequent years, primarily through his wife. “He was an unusual guy. He was not a very expressive guy, so he was not a letter writer,” Johnston says. “But he was like a second father to me, and his wife was very gregarious. So I kept in close touch with her over the years.”

Did Johnston ever let Weiland know how important he was to him?

“Yeah, he knew it,” Johnston says. “He knew the admiration I had for him. And of course all the other players shared that. But he was not an emotional guy, and if I’d ever become too expressive, he would have said, ‘Johnny, enough of that nonsense. Let’s go play hockey.’ ”

Johnston even tried to convey some of Weiland’s wisdom to his own kids.

“After his death I did a little essay for my children called Lessons from a Coach. It was just one of those things reflecting on a fellow.

“But that’s one person. I could go on for hours about 100 other people who have been a great part of my life. And in one way or another, they have been teachers.”

When Johnston is asked if he has a general message for teachers of all stripes, you learn why he’s had reason to ponder the subject.

“My sister and brother are teachers, so I guess it’s in our genes,” Johnston says. “What I would say is: I love the title of your magazine [Professionally Speaking] because I think professionals have a very special responsibility – in a nation that aspires to be smart and caring – to show unusual qualities of leadership.

“Professionals are second-class citizens in the sense that they don’t enjoy the same degree of freedom as ordinary citizens. As a professional you have a duty to the public good that somewhat constrains your activities. And it also places a responsibility on you.”

Specifically, Johnston believes that people recognized as professionals have three qualities:

“First of all, they have a specialized body of knowledge, which is usually taught or handed on in some way. There’s a specialized literature; there’s a specialized methodology; there’s a specialized, I guess the fancy word would be, epistemology.

“The second thing is they have either almost complete control or very substantial control over who enters the profession, what the levels of competence are and the standards of performance.

“The third – and this is the key quality – is in return for that second one. In return for that monopoly on entrance and competence, they have a duty to the public to ensure that professionalism is constantly renewed and that they are serving the public good in the most competent and ethical fashion that they can.

“If we want to be a smarter and more caring nation, we have to always redefine our professionalism so it is ahead of the times and always advancing the quality of life and the improvement of the human condition for all our fellow citizens.”

The Governor General of Canada expects a lot from teachers. But he obviously thinks a lot of them too.

So in David Johnston’s mind, if Cooney Weiland stands out as someone special, then he really must have been.