There are a lot of important roles on a hockey team. One such role that might get overlooked is the team’s captain. The captain is an important role, though, and one that helps create good chemistry on the team. He has to be someone that is a good role model and someone who can lead by example.
This season, veteran Aaron Johnson will be leading the way for Hartford Wolf Pack, the AHL affiliate for the New York Rangers. The 30 year old defenseman from Port Hawkesbury, NS signed a one year contract with the Rangers during the offseason. Being named captain in Hartford was not something he expected.
“I was really honored. It was kind of a surprise because I was new to the organization. It was a huge honor once the guys voted me in. I’m excited to get the chance to lead the way,” Johnson said. “This is the first team I’ve been captain for. I was assistant in Milwaukee and back in junior. So it means a lot.”
A big thing that Johnson brings to the table is experience. Since playing his first pro season in 2003-2004, he has played 265 regular season AHL games with 6 different teams and 291 regular season NHL games with 6 different teams. That wealth of knowledge gives him a unique perspective and the ability to help younger teammates.
“Obviously I know I’m an older guy and I’m an experienced guy. I thought there might be potential for me to be wearing an ‘A’ but they didn’t know me very well,” Johnson said. “Now that I’ve been here a little while, it meant a lot. You can kind of tell the guys look up to guys that have played in the NHL.”
Depending on the team, there might be a variety of qualities valued in a captain. The most important would be for him to be able to lead by example. He has to be able to show the other guys on the team what it takes to be successful.
“Work ethic is really important. I think I’ve always tried to be the hardest working guy out there,” Johnson said. “I try to lead by example in every situation. That’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
The AHL plays a 76 game season and that can be hard for rookies to adjust to. There are going to be good days and bad days. Johnson knows that keeping motivated can be difficult at times, especially for a younger guy. Throughout his time as a professional, he has seen a lot of ups and downs. He tries to bring that into the locker room.
“I have to try and bring that good work ethic day in and day out. It’s also important to try and stay positive. Those are two of the hardest things to do during a long season,” he said. “You have to work hard and stay positive even when you’re having a down day. I think those are two things I bring.”
Prior to the season starting, Johnson took part in camp with the Rangers, where he met a lot of the guys he’s playing with now. He must have made a good impression. Although he did not make it onto the Rangers roster, making a return to the NHL is not really something on his mind. The Rangers have gotten off to a rocky start, but that is not something that Johnson worries about.
“It really hasn’t been in my mind at all. I’m just looking forward to being (in Hartford) and playing a lot. I’m excited to help out the Wolf Pack right now,” Johnson said. “I know that there’s been some struggle (with the Rangers) but that kind of thing will take care of itself. We’ve got a lot of guys that can go up. It hasn’t really crossed my mind.”
Conversely, Hartford got off to a good start. After dropping their first game in a shootout, they went on to win their next five games. There has been a reasonable shuffle of players between the Rangers and Wolf Pack already, but it hasn’t seemed to slow them down much.
“We’re off to a good start. We’ve had some guys that have gone up and guys that have come back down. So, we have some talented players. I like the way it’s going so far,” Johnson said.
The biggest struggle for the Rangers has been at goaltender. Henrik Lundqvist who is usually stellar between the pipes has struggled a little bit and has already had an injury to deal with. On top of that, Martin Biron announced his retirement after starting the season. That has caused a shuffle of goalies through Hartford as well.
“It’s been tough. We’ve had 4 or 5 different guys coming in and out. To be honest, though, they’ve all done a great job and all played really well. It’s been easy to play in front of them,” Johnson said.
Hartford has had some fight filled games already this season and Johnson understands the importance of physicality. He has only dropped the gloves a couple times during his career, but he has been around long enough to see the value.
“I think that’s just part of the game of hockey. You have to be able to stand up for yourself and for your teammates in different situations. I think we have a lot of grit on our team with this,” Johnson said. “When a team has grit and talent, it can be a lethal mix. We hope it helps us.”
As a veteran player, Aaron Johnson does not have as difficult a time moving to new teams now as when he was younger. Each new team is a new opportunity to continue playing the game a player loves and he knows that well. It is a great perspective to have and likely helps make each new transition easier.
“Originally it was hard to switch to a new city with all new players just because you don’t know anyone. The more years you play, the more chance there is you know someone on your new team. It makes it a little easier to move to a new city,” he said. “At the end of the day everyone is there to play hockey and it’s such a small hockey world. It’s pretty easy to get to know the guys.”
Something similar can be said for your most memorable experiences. For young players, they always have similar favorite memories. As a player goes on in his career, the memories start to accumulate. Players get the chance to take part in playoff runs. Those can be invaluable and Johnson realizes that. Every player dreams of making a Stanley Cup run and ultimately winning the Cup. Johnson considers himself lucky to have witnessed some impressive playoff runs.
“At the start of your career your best memories are always your first game and your first goal. As you get older, it shifts to different memories. I was in the conference finals with Chicago a few years back and the Stanley Cup Final last year with Boston,” he said. “Those are moments that change a person’s career. You learn so much in May and June. I think those are moments that taught me the most.”
Even though being with the Bruins was not the most ideal situation, Johnson made the most of it. He was only able to get into 10 regular season games and did not make it into the playoffs at all. It seemed like with the injuries to defensemen that he might get to play during the playoffs. However, his last regular season game had been at the end of March and he had not been able to report to Providence without clearing waivers.
Even though he had to watch from the press box, Johnson will never forget the experience of Boston making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. He got to see how the leaders for the Bruins handled themselves game in and game out all through the playoffs.
“The biggest takeaway was the way the guys were in the dressing room. Guys like Chara or Bergeron who have played in those situations really don’t overreact,” Johnson said. “They’re in the moment and don’t get over excited. I think that’s something I really learned.”
It might seem counterintuitive to keep from overreacting during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After all, not every professional player gets to see the post season at all, much less gets the chance to see the Finals. Johnson knows that it’s important to have a certain level of excitement but you cannot very overexcited.
“It’s definitely hard to stay grounded and not get too caught up in the moment. It was new for me. I was in Chicago in the Conference Finals so I had kind of been in that situation but it was awhile ago,” Johnson said. “I think for a guy in that situation for his first or second time, it can be really exciting. The emotion can take over which is a good thing and a bad thing. You don’t want to get over excited but you want to play with that energy. You try to make it as positive as you can.”
This season, Johnson will look to impart some of the lessons that he’s learned on his teammates in Hartford. Although he says that getting a call-up is not a concern for him, it’ll be interesting to see if the veteran defenseman gets another shot at the NHL. He currently leads the team in points and assists. He is a hard worker, a good role model, and brings a lot to any team he plays for.