MacMillan won three medals with Canada in as many seasons, all bronze. Two came with successive World Championship teams in 1966 and 1967, followed by an Olympic bronze in 1968. He later won a Stanley Cup with the New York Islanders as an assistant coach under Al Arbour during the 1979-80 season.
“He was highly respected because of his personality,” said Kevin Devine, a Buffalo Sabres scout who grew up in Charlottetown. “To be hired as one of the assistant coaches for who I consider to be one of the best coaches of all time, Al Arbour, says enough right there. Billy was just the type of guy who led more by example, but if you ever needed anything, he was always there, and you could rely on him.”
Longtime coach and GM Doug MacLean, who also grew up in Charlottetown, took to Twitter to express his sadness. He wrote: “Billy MacMillan was my idol growing up in PEI. NHL player, coach, GM. RIP Billy.”
MacMillan also played for nearly a decade in the NHL, becoming only the fifth player from PEI to make the league (after Paddy Nolan, Charlie Cahill, Hickey Nicholson, and Wes Trainor). As a teen, he was a good all-around athlete but decided to move to Toronto and focus on hockey. He played for the vaunted St. Mike’s Majors and won a Memorial Cup with the team, coached by Father David Bauer, in 1961, earning a call from Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Punch Imlach with an offer to join the team.
Shockingly, instead of pursuing a professional path, MacMillan decided to return to university with the hopes of representing his country in international play. Sure enough, it was at Saint Dunstan’s, in Charlottetown, that he was recruited by Father Bauer for the National Team, and MacMillan ended up playing for the better part of five seasons, 1965-70.
At his first World Championship, in 1966 in Ljubljana, he scored the winning goal against Finland and helped the team capture the bronze medal. A year later, he scored the only goal in a crucial 1-1 tie with Czechoslovakia that helped secure another bronze. At the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, MacMillan scored one goal in six games, that an insurance marker in a 5-2 win over the Finns that again helped take third place for the third year running.
MacMillan stayed with Father Bauer for the better part of two more seasons before signing with the Leafs and making his NHL debut on October 11, 1970 at the modestly-advanced age of 27. He played at Maple Leaf Gardens for two seasons before moving on to Atlanta and the Islanders, retiring in 1978 after 446 regular-season games in the NHL.
He wasn’t idle very long, joining Arbour in Long Island and becoming part of the team’s historic first Stanley Cup, which also was the first team to have Europeans on it. Indeed, Anders Kallur and Stefan Persson were the first two European-trained players to win the Cup, and MacMillan parlayed this success into a head coaching job with the Colorado Rockies the next season. He later coached New Jersey for two years before being let go, at which point he returned to Charlottetown.
During the day, he worked for the PEI Liquor Control Commission, and at night he kept on coaching, leading the University of PEI Panthers to the Atlantic championship in 1991. He was admired wherever he went and in whatever capacity he lived. As a player, he was a fierce competitor but gentlemanly player. As a coach, he was a mentor to countless Islanders back in PEI and respected for his accomplishments and humility. In 1985, he was inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame, and several of his Team Canada teammates from the ‘60s were later inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, notably Seth Martin (1997) and Terry O’Malley (1998).
MacMillan’s impact can also be partly measured by what has happened since his NHL debut in 1970, when he was the fifth Islander to play in the league. Today, there have been nearly 40 PEI players, many influenced directly or through future generations by MacMillan’s accomplishments and reputation. That says it all.