Bryan ‘Bugsy’ Watson, NHL defenseman and founder of Bugsy’s Pizza, dies at 78

Bryan ‘Bugsy’ Watson, NHL defenseman and founder of Bugsy’s Pizza, dies at 78
Watson (right) battles it out with the Chicago Blackhawks' Bobby Hull. (Courtesy photo)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Bryan Watson, otherwise known as “Bugsy,” a relentless National Hockey League defenseman who played for the Washington Capitals and founded local pizza joint Bugsy’s Pizza, died in St. Michaels, Maryland on July 8 from pneumonia. He was 78.

Locally, Watson was known as the hard working, hard playing former owner of Old Town standard Bugsy’s Pizza. He was described as forever smiling, cracking jokes and grabbing beers with his clientele at the renowned sports bar.

However, most knew him for his career in professional hockey and his reputation as a defensive terror on the ice. Throughout his 17 years in the NHL, Watson made a name for himself as a nuisance for some of the league’s most talented scorers. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Bobby Hull would, ultimately, give Watson his nickname, “Bugsy,” due to his needling, combative presence on the ice.

Bryan Watson (Courtesy photo)

During the 1965-1966 season, Hull was riding high, having scored a record 54 goals that season. By the time the Blackhawks and Watson’s Detroit Red Wings faced off in the first round of the Stanley Cup in 1966, Red Wings Coach Sid Abel instructed Watson to do one thing: cover Hull. Watson did what he was told to do.

Hull scored only two goals in the six-game series, and Detroit won four out of the six games and moved on to the next round.

“He irritates me,” Hull said in a 1966 Sports Illustrated profile of Watson.

“When I’m told to watch a guy, I watch him,” Watson said in the same article.

At 160 pounds, Watson was physically overshadowed by the 195-pound Hull, but Watson’s constant physical hounding, not to mention cursing and verbal jabs, contained and constrained Hull. Watson also managed to score two goals in the series.

“He might have been small in stature, but he wanted to fight everybody,” Mike Guffre, a close friend of Watson’s and the former craft beer provider for Bugsy’s, said. “It didn’t matter who the biggest guy was in the league – he would scrap with that guy. He wasn’t scared of anything, anyone.”

While Watson’s tactics made him popular among his hometown fans, they also resulted in a record that is riddled with fouls and penalties. During his 1971-1972 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Watson led the NHL in penalty minutes, with 215. He later achieved a career high of 322 penalty minutes during his 1975-1976 return to the Red Wings.

Born Nov. 14, 1942 in Bancroft, Ontario, population 1,200, Watson was on the ice by the age of 3. Watson’s father created an ice rink for his five children, and before long Watson hardly ever left the ice.

“Actually, I think I spent most of the time on the ice at that age. I fell all the time at first,” Watson told the Alexandria Times in 2008.

Watson’s big break came at the age of 12 when his local Bancroft team came within spitting distance of an Ontario-wide tournament win. The tournament took place in Peterborough, where the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens have a junior hockey team, the Peterborough Petes, from which it farms players for the pros.

After seeing his performance, Petes’ Coach Calum “Baldy” MacKay took an interest in the young Watson.

“Baldy McKay told my dad to let him know if I ever wanted to entertain the idea of playing hockey for Peterborough,” Watson said in the 2008 interview with the Times.

Watson eventually left home at 14 to play Junior A hockey for the Petes under renowned Coach Scotty Bowman in the early 1960s before joining the pros at 21 and playing for the Montreal Canadiens, one of the original six NHL teams, in 1963. During his time with the Canadiens, all stars Henri Richard and Jean Béliveau led the team to its 1965 Stanley Cup victory.

He would go on to play for the Red Wings, the Canadiens for a second go-around, the Oakland Seals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the St. Louis Blues, the Red Wings again and, eventually, the Washington Capitals.

Courtesy photo

Watson was traded to the Capitals during the 1976-1977 season. At the time, the Capitals were one of the league’s newest teams, having been founded in 1974, and “didn’t have enough talent,” Watson said in a 2014 interview with the Capitals Outsider. Watson played three seasons for the Capitals and even settled in the area with his wife, Lindy Wilson.

The full body commitment Watson gave to the sport was what left a lasting impression on his fans and opponents. His single-minded focus and freight train momentum were an asset for his teammates and coaches over the years.

“He was a tough guy, and his big thing was a lot of those penalties were defending his teammates,” Watson’s son Stephen Watson said. “He was the toughest dude I know.”

As a master provocateur and verbal bombardier, Watson was often able to cripple his opponents’ offense by pushing his opponents’ buttons, forcing errors and dragging them to the penalty box.

During a game against his former team, the Canadiens, Watson, sitting on the bench, leaned over the lip of the rink and gave the Canadiens’ Yvan Cournoyer a “word of advice.” Watson’s words were enough to raise Cournoyer’s ire and get him to slam his stick against the boards near the Red Wings’ bench. Cournoyer, one of the Canadiens’ biggest offensive weapons, received a two-minute penalty.

Watson played his final NHL season with the Capitals during the 1978-1979 season, before leaving the team and the league to join the Cincinnati Stingers in the World Hockey Association.

After his retirement, Watson had a brief stint as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers in 1980. Although Watson only coached the Oilers for 18 games, he could always say he coached a 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky, who later frequented Bugsy’s whenever he was in town.

Post-NHL, Watson and his wife opened an Old Town location of Armand’s Pizzeria & Grille in 1983. Watson also opened a second-floor bar, which he named the Penalty Box. He later renamed the restaurant Bugsy’s in 1998.

“He didn’t ever put anything but 100% into something, and that was the same thing with that place,” Stephen Watson said.

The restaurant and bar have become local institutions since opening. Guffre, who called Watson “one of the best customers I ever had,” likened Bugsy’s to the titular bar in the sitcom “Cheers.”

“You’d go into his bar at the Penalty Box, and everybody knew each other. He always made it feel so special for people, and he was so kind and gracious to everyone,” Guffre said. “… He would always be there, and he’d come around to all the tables to make sure everybody was having a good time, have a beer with you.”

A collection of moments from Watson’s hockey career on display at
Bugsy’s Pizza. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

At the center of it all was Watson himself. As much as he was a frightening physical presence on the ice, out of the rink Watson was charismatic, fun-loving and ready to laugh.

“He didn’t have to try to be the life of the party. Naturally, his humor and his spirit were really contagious, so he just took over a room wherever we were,” Stephen Watson said. “… It was just like, boom, Bugsy’s here. Look out, it’s gonna be fun.”

For those that worked with him, like current Bugsy’s owner Bartolo “Bart” Paz, Watson was fiercely loyal and supportive of his employees.

Paz left war-torn El Salvador in 1986 at the age of 16 and arrived in Alexandria. A teenager living in a foreign country, Paz said he found a friendly face in Watson, who offered him a job.

“He treated me almost as his son, and I had that much respect for him and he was great to me,” Paz said.

Watson was a straight shooter and someone who valued not only loyalty but honesty above all else, according to Paz. When Paz came to Watson in 2013 to announce that he planned on leaving Bugsy’s to open his own restaurant, Watson told him to wait until he had the opportunity to talk with Lindy. Three days later, Watson came back to Paz and said, “Are you ready?”

Watson with his grandson. (Courtesy photo)

“I said, ‘Ready for what?’ ‘To buy me out,’” Paz said. “He said, ‘If you’re leaving, … I cannot do it without you.’ He always said it before, but I always thought it was to make me feel comfortable, happy, but he proved that he meant what he said before.”

Paz bought Bugsy’s in 2013 and has maintained the restaurant that bears his former boss and friend’s name ever since.

Despite his reputation, Stephen Watson said his father’s approach in the rink was always focused on helping his teammates, and it was an approach he brought to the community in Alexandria and beyond.

Watson received the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award in 1978 for his work overseeing the Special Olympics, and he was known to organize fundraisers for local charities.

“He was generous; he was passionate; he was one tough dude, period,” Stephen Watson said. “They don’t make as many people like him anymore.”

Watson is survived by Lindy Wilson, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 53 years; two children, Stephen Watson, of New Orleans, and Lisa Watson, of Los Angeles; and his sister, brother and two grandsons.