2020 Inductees Dr. Don Johnson and Phil Ashcroft: pioneers of sports medicine in Ottawa

Posted: February 25, 2020

By Martin Cleary

They were young. They were running buddies. They were filled with medical knowledge.

Dr. Don Johnson

They were on the verge of greatness in a city experiencing a running and exercise boom, but they couldn’t see what was heading towards them. They would become pioneers, thrive in a dream job and thousands of athletes — recreational, amateur and professional — would owe them a big thank you for extending their playing days.

They were about to enter a new field of medicine and there was no textbook to guide them. But they figured it out over time, and the institution they created is on the cusp of celebrating its 50th anniversary.

They are Dr. Don Johnson and physiotherapist Phil Ashcroft, who created the Carleton University Sports Medicine Clinic in 1972 and threw Ottawa’s injured athletes a vital lifeline.

And for the thousands of athletes they have put back together with surgery or physiotherapy sessions and sent back into action, the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame will induct them into its house of sporting heritage May 13 at the Brookstreet Hotel.

Ashcroft, who died three years ago, will be inducted posthumously.

The birth of sports medicine in Canada

When Carleton University completed building its new recreational athletic complex in 1972, the adjacent field house became empty. But athletic director Keith Harris and assistant director/head football coach Kim McCuaig had an idea, which they presented to Johnson, a young orthopedic surgeon.

Phil Ashcroft

Sports medicine was just making its way into Canada and Harris and McCuaig wanted Carleton to be on that leading edge. Johnson, a surgeon at the National Defence Medical Centre (NDMC) who was more familiar with reconstructing people’s backs and hips, had never heard of sports medicine, but was asked to establish a clinic in the former field house.

 “I used to run with Phil at NDMC and I asked Phil (if) he would like to get into sports medicine,” said Johnson, who was serving as the team physician and trainer for Carleton’s football and hockey teams. He also held similar roles with Canada’s 1976 Olympic teams, the national track and field team, the Ottawa Rough Riders, Senators and Sooners between 1974 to 1995.

An active soccer player with a keen desire to treat injured athletes with his physio skills, Ashcroft immediately jumped at the idea.

“Phil carried the clinic through the first couple of years,” added Johnson, who was a few years away from introducing patients to minimally invasive arthroscopic knee surgery, which would be revolutionary.

“He knew how to take care of soft tissue injuries, sore knees and sore hips. It all came together. Phil’s knowledge of soft tissue injuries was the foundation of how the clinic started.”

While treating one of the injured Carleton football players, Johnson asked him for his ideas on turning the old field house into a sports medicine clinic. That was the perfect question to ask a fourth-year architectural student, especially one with the name Barry Hobin, who has become an award-winning and highly acclaimed professional in his field in Ottawa over the past 40 years.

The clinic was a one-stop experience for the ailing athletes. Each athlete would be assessed, receive X-rays if necessary, treatment and follow-up appointments. Once the clinic started to build steam, Johnson, now 77, was offering surgical solutions at The Ottawa Hospital for patients with torn meniscus or later anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) damage.

On the leading edge of orthopedic surgery

Johnson graduated from Queen’s University medical school in 1966 at age 24. But it wasn’t until after his six years of general and specialized training that he discovered orthopedic surgery. He excelled and it became his forte.

“I wanted to do something rather than give pills,” said Johnson, who learned about arthroscopy from Dr. Bob Jackson in 1972 and performed his first partial removal of a meniscus tear in 1978.

Daring to look ahead, Johnson was on the leading edge of knee surgery and he would eventually become a specialist in ACL reconstructive surgery. The Ottawa Hospital was his second home as he performed more than 12,000 ACL procedures in his career and gave his patients a second run at a good life.

And the clinic wasn’t just for elite athletes or Carleton students.

“The real key was we wanted to make it a community facility,” said Johnson, who retired as an orthopedic surgeon in 2013 and spent 41 years serving the clinic.

In the early years, the 900-square-foot clinic would see as many as 125 patients a day. Dr. Jim Howe, who was plugged into the running community, and physiotherapist Michael Rogers completed the staff roster. Today, the clinic is located in the university’s Ice House arena complex and has a staff of 36, including eight sport medicine physicians, six orthopedic surgeons and 10 physiotherapists.

“Back in those (early) days, the clinic was an open concept. There were no curtains. People conversed with each other. But now people are on their phones and no one talks,” said Rogers, who bought the clinic with Terry Paul from Ashcroft in 1990 and sold it in 2010 to a group of two doctors and three physiotherapists. Rogers started at the clinic as a physiotherapist in 1975 and continues to work part time as a shockwave therapist.

When the get-fit ParticipACTION movement was in full swing and combined with the start of the running boom, the clinic became a vital part of the lives of Ottawa athletes. The doctors and physiotherapists were involved in sports and could understand and assist their injured patients.

“It was good and very positive,” Rogers added about the clinic. “Our specialty was sports medicine and it was for the top athletes and the Joe Blow athletes. It grew like crazy. It’s a good atmosphere and lots of fun.”

“I’m sure there wasn’t a runner in the first 20 years (of the clinic) who didn’t go there (for treatment),” said Eleanor Thomas, the women’s champion of the first two Ottawa Marathons in 1975 and 1976.

Rogers first heard about the clinic when he attended a Canadian Athletic Therapists Association meeting and Johnson and Ashcroft were making a presentation in 1974. He was overwhelmed by their talk and felt he had found the mecca for his professional interest.

“In those days, it was some place to go to meet professional people with good knowledge. It was a boom to the city. Carleton University was known for its sports clinic, but it was separate from the university,” Rogers said.

“The clinic was so busy. If you went to the hospital, you’d be seen in emergency and ligament, knee and ankle injuries were low priority. You wouldn’t get the care that you needed. Carleton University (clinic) came at the right time.”

Embedded in the Ottawa sport community

Besides their dedication to the clinic, the determined Johnson and the good-natured Ashcroft were quality athletes in their own right.

They were avid marathoners and ran the inaugural Ottawa Marathon in 1975, which started and finished on the grounds of Carleton University. Johnson finished 19th in the field of 146 participants in two hours, 56 minutes, while Ashcroft completed the wide-open course a few minutes later.

Johnson was fearless, when it came to long-distance sports adventures, whether it was road running, cycling, cross-country skiing, triathlons, hiking or canoeing. He ran approximately 75 marathons, all between the times of 2:50 and 3:05, including 19 Boston Marathons. He also ran numerous five- and 10-kilometre races and, even today in his late 70s, trains religiously for that shorter race.

Just reading Johnson’s athletic curriculum vitae would make one tired. As a cyclist, he has completed the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour (Ottawa to Kingston to Ottawa over two days) 25 times and participated in more than 20 GranFondo marathons (160 kilometres each).

In winter, he finished the two-day, 160-kilometre Canadian Ski Marathon tour 20 times and was awarded bib No. 1. He also has raced Worldloppet League’s races in Gatineau and Norway.

His summertime activities also have included competing in more than 30 triathlons, the 1982 Hawaiian Ironman and the Escape from Alcatraz; hiking up to Camp 3 (23,000 feet) on Mount Everest and tackling mountain paths in the Canadian Rockies, Colorado, Idaho, Mexico and Brazil; and paddling the Jock River canoe race 15 times, the Colonel By canoe triathlon 10 times and the 160-kilometre Courier de Bois canoe race.

Ashcroft, who was born in Bolton, England, completed 45 marathons in his career and one of his highlights was breaking the three-hour barrier. He found the first Ottawa Marathon a lonely trek as there were few runners and few spectators.

Lynn Douglas, one of Ashcroft’s two daughters, often cycled beside her father in the marathon to provide him with a flat cola drink.

“It wouldn’t give him gas, but the sugar he needed to get through the wall,” she said.

Ashcroft dreamed of being a professional soccer player, but his mother squashed that idea. Instead, he found true happiness as a physiotherapist in England and Canada. One of his prized assignments was serving as the physiotherapist when the famed New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team toured England.

“He went into physiotherapy because he could get people back on their feet, when they were injured, and back to regular life. It was important to him,” Douglas said.

“One of the things he was conscience of was the athletes didn’t want to give up their training and sport. They (Ashcroft and Johnson) were keen to get them back soon and keep up their fitness level.”

After selling the Carleton Sports Medicine Clinic, Ashcroft and his wife, Irene, moved to Fredericton, N.B., to be near family. Ashcroft took up golf and became a notable player, shooting his age when he was 79.

Johnson, who received a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Association of Sports Medicine, and Ashcroft couldn’t ask for more in their professional lives. As Johnson will tell you: “Sports medicine doc. The greatest job ever.”

Dr. Don Johnson and Phil Ashcroft will be inducted as builders into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame as part of the class of 2020 on Wednesday, May 13 at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata. Buy your tickets before they sell out

“I had heard rumours, but I never thought it would happen. It’s a great honour, especially when you see the fellows who have gone in ahead of me. I have been president of the Arthroscopy Association of North America, but this tops that. I’m really happy and honoured to be part of this group.”—Dr. Don Johnson

“He would have been thrilled and so honoured. He loved people and the clinic was his life. He so enjoyed being a physiotherapist.” —Lynn Douglas, daughter of Phil Ashcroft