Byron ‘Boss’ Johnson

Byron ‘Boss’ Johnson as the Premier of British Columbia
Byron ‘Boss’ Johnson as the Premier of British Columbia.

(December 10, 1890 – January 12, 1964)

Victoria Capitals (1910-1911)
Vancouver Lacrosse Club (1913; 1915)
Vancouver Athletics (1914)

Although now remembered as British Columbia’s 24th Premier from 1947 to 1952, in his younger days ‘Boss’ Johnson also had a brief stint as a pro lacrosse goalkeeper for Vancouver.

Born in Victoria to Icelandic parents, his nickname ‘Boss’ was not reflective of his personality temperament but rather stemmed from his heritage. The anglicisation of his original Icelandic birth-name, “Björn” – or “Bjössi”, is roughly translated as ‘Little Björn’ – or in English: ‘Little Byron’. Neighbourhood children couldn’t pronounce Bjössi; the closest to it they could get was Boss. So ‘Boss’ he became.

Johnson was an extremely good athlete as a boy and he was eager to excel in all forms of sports he played – for example, rugby is noted as one of his interests – but it was lacrosse that became his primary focus and first love on the playing field. After playing lacrosse for various teams at the scholastic level, he turned senior with Victoria Capitals in the Pacific Coast Amateur Lacrosse Association before then making the jump to professional in 1913, playing parts of three seasons for an assortment of Vancouver squads.

The signing of ‘Boss’ Johnson in 1913 was big news in his hometown of Victoria. Here he appears in the Victoria Daily Colonist.
The signing of ‘Boss’ Johnson in 1913 was big news in his hometown of Victoria. Here he appears in the Victoria Daily Colonist.

He signed with the Vancouver Lacrosse Club late in the 1913 season as a replacement for the future hall-of-fame goalkeeper Cory Hess. Con Jones was keen on the Victorian youngster and spent the better part of two months pursuing the reluctant keeper. Johnson tried out for Vancouver at the end of June and won unanimous praise from the likes of national stars such as ‘Newsy’ Lalonde and Nick Carter, in their opinion harder to beat than ‘Bun’ Clark, one of the best in the land at the time.

Finally Jones managed to induce him to sign when he offered him a 10-game contract paying $1200, but ‘Boss’ only managed to play in 2 matches before league play collapsed and folded for that year.

Whether by coincidence or by design, Johnson made his debut in the first professional match ever played in his hometown of Victoria – narrowly losing 5-4 to the New Westminster Salmonbellies at Oak Bay.

When Johnson signed to play professional lacrosse, he was one of the most prominent and popular sports figures in Victoria and it was a major blow to the Victoria senior lacrosse team and its hopes in fielding a team that year capable enough to challenge for the Mann Cup. As well, the local rugby team would suffer on the field from the loss of its star fullback now that ‘Boss’ was prevented from participating in amateur sports of any sort.

‘Boss’ Johnson then switched ships in 1914, debunking rumours in the process that he would go East to play for the Québec Irish-Canadians of the Dominion Lacrosse Union, when he signed with the Vancouver Athletic Club. The 1913 Mann Cup champions decided to take their game to the next level, departing the senior ranks for the professional game as a replacement for the now-defunct Vancouver Lacrosse Club – with ‘Boss’ Johnson replacing yet another future hall-of-fame goalkeeper, Dave Gibbons, in the process.

‘Boss’ would make a return to Victoria when the Vancouver Athletic Club and New Westminster scheduled their June 13, 1914 match to be played at Royal Athletic Park in Victoria. Johnson and fellow Islander (and Icelander) teammate Ed ‘Cotton’ Brynjolfson both played prominent roles in front of their fellow Victorians as they helped lead the Athletics in defeating the Salmonbellies by a score of 8-7 that day.

During the 1915 season, back again with Con Jones and his revived Vancouver Lacrosse Club, ‘Boss’ found himself replaced in late June 1915 by Dave Gibbons. Johnson’s final game for Vancouver, on June 26, 1915, ended on a decidedly sour note as he was ejected from the game after a second-quarter bout with Bill Turnbull of New Westminster – with 50 minutes in penalties accumulated against him.

Very rare image of Boss Johnson and Dave Gibbons, 1915
Very rare image of Boss Johnson (left) and Dave Gibbons (right) as team-mates in 1915

As his lacrosse career ended, his military career in the Field Ambulance Corps then began. There is no mention regarding his transition away from the playing field and it is unknown whether Gibbons replaced him because of impending enlistment or due to his heated scrap with Turnbull.

In all, ‘Boss’ Johnson appeared in 13 matches during his short professional career. He managed to defeat the Salmonbellies in 5 of those games to give him a .385 winning record – no mean feat considering the chaotic organisational nature of the Vancouver squads during those immediate years. He would let in 97 goals for a 7.46 goals-against average.

Later in life, during the 1930s as his political career began to take off, he became Commissioner of Lacrosse and worked to provide playing fields and equipment for youngsters throughout British Columbia. In his final year as president of the British Columbia Lacrosse Association, 3,600 sticks and 36 sets of goal nets were distributed in 1936 under Johnson’s promotion committee.

On the playing fields of politics, Byron Johnson led a Liberal-Conservative coalition government for five years and is primarily remembered for introducing mandatory health insurance in British Columbia and the first provincial sales tax to pay for that coverage. His government also began construction on the diking network in the Fraser Valley in the wake of the devastating 1948 floods. His legacy however in provincial politics has been overshadowed by John Hart who preceded him and W.A.C. Bennett who followed.

Just as his transitional stint as Premier of British Columbia would be remembered, ‘Boss’ Johnson was a transitional figure as well in the game of lacrosse: a reliable player who excelled well during his time but nevertheless found himself book-ended by greatness that came both before and after him.

For more information about Premier Johnson’s political career, the best references are the books ‘British Columbia’s Premiers in Profile: the good, the bad, and the transient’ (2000) by William Rayner and ‘Portraits of the Premiers: An Informal History of British Columbia’ (1969) by S.W. Jackman.

boss johnson stats

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