(Photo: Blue Jackets)
Once found, the game of hockey can often be considered the greatest gift. For Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, the pieces needed to play the game came at Christmas and a love of the game found and swept him away on a memorable date.
“My Dad played hockey, my birthday is January 13th, on Christmas when I was around 4-years-old I got some hockey equipment. On my fifth birthday my parents took me skating. I played my first hockey game on my fifth birthday.”
It’s the moments that flood the early years to play hockey in it’s purest form that begin to define a players career.
“I don’t think there’s one specific memory, my favorite times were when I got to go out and just play and have fun. Pickup hockey at it’s best, no coaches on the ice or anything like that, just going out with your buddies and playing. If you had a friend whose dad built a rink in the backyard and you got to go out and play there. Usually around Christmastime go out on a lake and play there. Those are the best times.”
While playing with friends were some of the best times, learning to love the game from a fan standpoint is a quintessential part of growing up hockey. While young fans across the world may label Johnson as their hockey hero, he too once found himself idolizing a hockey great.
“It probably would have been Alex Kovalev, he was one of my boyhood idols just because he was so talented. I always enjoyed watching him because you never knew what he was going to do.”
Of course, interest in the game stems from more than idolizing NHL superstars, it’s often a mentality formed within a family.
“My Dad played at the University of Wisconsin and my younger brother plays, kind of our whole family is a hockey family now.”
With a family background skating behind him, the decision to defend the blue line was almost an easy choice.
“When I was younger I was talking to my dad about wanting to play more, I wanted more ice-time. My dad was a defenseman and we were driving in the car talking about it and at that point I said, ‘you know what Dad, I want to be a defenseman.’ I was 13-years-old, it was right before Bantam hockey and I became a defenseman at that point.”
While fans may thank Johnson’s father for guiding him towards a defensive position, Johnson himself sends gratitude towards both his parents.
“My parents for sure, they’re the ones that sacrificed everything to give me the opportunities that I have today. They made some major sacrifices, I think every player who has gotten to this level may have a similar story to what their parents have done — talking to them you’ll find that parents don’t ever regret what they’ve done, not even for a minute.”
With the support of his parents showcased at center ice and always remembered, the sentiments of a hard work ethic are at the forefront of Johnson’s thoughts.
“Don’t follow it, chase it, go after it. You’ve got to make it happen, you can’t just hope it happens.”
A product of the notable Shattuck Saint Mary’s hockey system, Johnson helped propel the team to a U.S. National Championship along side Sidney Crosby during the 2002-03 season. But it wasn’t simply the accomplishment, but more-so the experience and opportunity the program presented.
“It was a big point in my hockey development. At one point we had the key to the rink, so I could head over there with my dad and skate at any time on the weekends or at night. It just gave more valuable time on the ice, hours, hour after hour practicing the game with my Dad — it helped me tremendously. It was a tough decision to leave home to go there, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. You go there and make lifelong friends, like Sidney [Crosby].”
The greatest dream for a young hockey player often skates towards playing in the big show. Finding success on NHL ice is the ultimate goal, for Johnson, the dream was never the NHL but to attend the University of Michigan.
“It was a dream of mine, one of the greatest accomplishments of my career was earning a scholarship to go there. It was my dream as a kid, I never had aspirations of playing in the NHL or anything as a kid, I wanted to play college hockey and I wanted to play at Michigan. My mom and her whole side of the family went to Michigan, growing up in Michigan, Michigan hockey is a really big deal. That was to this day one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve ever had.”
Skating as a Michigan Wolverine marked the completion of a childhood dream, but the reality that something more was a possibility, only became a thought when Johnson was actually drafted.
Drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Johnson found his rights traded to the LA Kings, just a year later. Dominating the ice as sophomore, earned him ‘CCHA Defenseman of the Year’ — the season would be his last as a Wolverine as he joined the LA Kings during the 2006-07 season. On February 23, 2012, Johnson found a new home, when he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jeff Carter and a conditional first round draft pick.
With accomplishments flooding his roster at just 26-years-old, one dream that many may never experience found him during 2010 when he was named to the Team USA roster for the Vancouver Olympics. An honor that will forever remain embedded in his heart.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s the pinnacle of sports, playing in the Olympics, forever I’ll be able to say that I’m an Olympic silver medalist, it’s something that I’ll cherish forever. You can go win a Stanley Cup, not to take away from it by any means, but you can go anywhere in the world and say you’re an Olympic medalist and they’ll know what you’re talking about. That’s not necessarily true for the Stanley Cup.”
Considered a notable face of USA Hockey, the upcoming Olympics would have provided a venue to re-connect with friends. Despite predictions and the outrage of fans, Johnson was notably absent from the roster announcement that came at the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Classic. However, the opportunity to connect did happen this past August, during the Olympic camp held in Arlington, Virginia.
“Seeing a lot of the same guys that I’ve known for years, like Kane and Kessel, I’ve known both those guys for a long time, since I was 15-16 years old. Not just those two, but a bunch of the guys. It’s always fun to get together, even though we don’t play with each other during the season and we don’t see each other for extended periods of time — you never miss a bit when we get back together.”
Focusing on propelling the Blue Jackets towards continued success takes precedent over Olympic focus. But the memory and emotions of the experience will never escape Johnson. Silver medal success found in Vancouver marks his biggest accomplishment to date.
“The 2010 Olympics, being named to the team and then winning an Olympic silver medal, it was kind of bittersweet at the time, you just won a silver medal, but you lost in overtime to get it. Over time you grasp how special it is and how unique being an Olympic medalist is, it’s definitely the biggest accomplishment of my career so far.”
Of course, Olympic memories last a lifetime, but so do the countless games spent on Columbus ice that highlight Johnson’s young career. Often pegged as a non-traditional hockey market, Columbus, in Johnson’s eyes, it’s exactly the type of environment that hockey should be played in.
“The people in the organization, my teammates, it’s a very down to earth place to be. Hardworking, you’re surrounded by a bunch of normal people — that may sound weird, but it’s not always true in the professional sports world. It’s a great sports town, last year when we went on a good run we got more acknowledgment and saw how great it can be. Everyone knows Buckeye football and how much support they have, if we can just start stringing together winning seasons here, it’s an unbelievable sports town.”
It’s easy to see what type of defensive personality Johnson brings to the ice, dishing bit hits game in, and game out. Off the ice, it’s a different story.
“I’m a pretty conservative guy, pretty laid back, pretty simple. I think I’m a normal 26-year-old really, I enjoy heading to the movies, hanging out with friends, all the normal stuff. During the summer, when the season is over the last thing you want to do is get on a plane, so I spend time at home. Normal, laid back, mid-west kid.”
Off the ice isn’t a common occurrence for now, with half an NHL season waiting to be played, Johnson hopes to continue the success he’s found with a core group of players donning the Blue Jacket logo.
“More of the same, when I was a rookie in LA Ron Blake told me that what makes a good pro is consistency, if you can bring it for 82 games that makes you a good pro. A lot of people can bring it for 10 games or a handful of games, but I try to bring a consistent game for 82 and I’m going to keep trying to do more of the same.”
With Jack Johnson on the roster, fans won’t be feeling blue — they’ll be supporting it. Whether Blue Jacket blue, or red, white and blue, this mid-west boy has grown up hockey and succeeded beyond even his collegiate dream.