Kevin SchultzNEWARK, NJ — For some hockey players the journey to the NHL is swift and clear cut and for others it may take a long time, have twists and turns, and that’s assuming they ever reach the NHL at all.
Johnson’s path to the NHL stopped and started, then took a few more stops, before finding the ice at the Prudential Center in an Islanders uniform. At the age of 32, he finally got the call to the Big Show and it was a moment he had been waiting on for a long time and wasn’t sure ever would happen.
“I definitely appreciate [the opportunity],” he said sitting in a visiting lockerroom stall, zipping up a big duffel of equipment for the team’s next trip to Buffalo. “You don’t take it for granted. You just kinda work and work and you feel like you earn it kind of when it’s not given to you right away.”
For Johnson, the opportunity was anything but given to him.
He grew up in Alaska, where the winters are long and dark and that makes for an awful lot of hockey to be played. He was also part of a sort-of generation of Anchorage-born NHLers, growing up there around the same time as Scott Gomez, two years his senior, and former Islanders Nate Thompson and Tim Wallace.
“There was a good thing going in that era,” Johnson told the New England Hockey Journal in 2011. “There were a lot of good hockey players, and that made guys good. Having the great competition, and wanting to see yourself up at that level makes you want to work hard.”
Before Friday night, he spent 11-plus seasons playing in college and the minors. After a year in the USHL – the top amateur league in the US that many players use to get a bit of pre-college seasoning – the Anchorage, Alaska native walked onto the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s hockey team.
“There’s always the kid in you. You always visualize, and dream, and day-dream, about it,” Johnson recalled about his expectations of walking on at Anchorage after Friday night’s debut. “But you know when you’re in that kind of a position, at that level, in terms of if you’re honest about your abilities, you’re thinking that it’s not realistic but – what if, right?”
After college Johnson got a walk-on again, this time with his other hometown team, the Anchorage Aces. The Aces play in the ECHL, the third tier of professional hockey in North America, two stops from the big league. He didn’t stick with the Aces, or the Idaho Steelheads after that, but finally found some footing with the Utah Grizzlies who play in a suburb of Salt Lake City playing 57 games in ‘07-‘08.
But there were more stops; first to Cincinnati and then back home again to Alaska for 43 and 54 games each. At 29, he finally made the next step up to the AHL in a successful tryout with the Manchester Monarchs.
In Manchester he stuck for three seasons, racking up 11 points and almost 50 fights as one of the team’s tough guys.
“I’m desperate,” Johnson said to the Journal in 2011 referencing his NHL ambition. “Everybody in here has a dream, and if you don’t have a dream, you’ve got no business being here.”
He also met Scott Pellerin in Manchester, which may have changed the course of his hockey career. Pellerin was a Monarchs assistant coach for the past six years and took over the head job for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ AHL affiliate, this season. When Pellerin came to the Islanders organization, he brought Johnson along as a veteran presence on what was a very young team. It was a minor league contract for Johnson and a trip to Islanders training camp in the fall, which turned into a two-way, NHL/AHL deal in March.
As injuries depleted the Islanders roster over the last two months, more and more of Johnson’s teammates got the call up to the Island. On Tuesday night, he and a host of Sound Tiger teammates were in the stands watching team favorite Brett Gallant make his pro debut for the Islanders at the Coliseum. Following the game, Johnson wouldn’t go into the NHL team’s quarters out of respect.
Two days later, he got his own call to the big league after Johan Sundstrom went down injured. On Friday, he seemed to be walking on air after playing in the Islanders’ 3-2 shootout win over the Devils.
“It was a lot of fun, I’ll definitely remember it,” he remarked about his first taste of NHL action. “I can’t say enough about the guys on the team and everybody involved… I’m overwhelmed, it’s something I’ll definitely treasure.”
Johnson didn’t have anyone specific to thank on Friday night, but recognized that there were a lot of people that helped him on his long road.
“I wish I could say one but there are so many, coaches, and parents, and friends. For me, when you kinda toil in the minors a little bit your friends… they really support you and when you generally feel like they believe in you, it’s kinda like you know what ‘why not? Why can’t I?’ … I know that people would kill for the opportunity to play hockey and I’m so fortunate”
With congratulatory handshakes from everyone in the lockerroom, at long last, the NHL dream was finally realized.
“I guess the best thing I can say is that dreams do come true. If you don’t ever give up and you work hard and you give 100% there’s no reason why you can’t get everything you want. I definitely proved that today.”