At Long Last, Justin Johnson Realizes NHL Dream

Kevin Schultz

NEWARK, 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.

justin_johnsonThe Islanders’ Justin Johnson made his pro debut in Newark, New Jersey yesterday on a warm Friday night and for him the journey was more of the latter.

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.”




22 comments
Matt Corbin
Matt Corbin

I haven't played hockey in 10 years!  I could probably get a shot with the Islanders. LGR

gleichzahl
gleichzahl

i must say that when i saw justin i thought, he looks the part. :)

topshelf
topshelf

How about an update on the sale? Or was that just smoke and mirrors to distract the fans from another disappointing season? It has been my experience that once true story surfaces reality sets in a week or two later...where is our reality 

John Richards
John Richards

Nice story. Now lets bring in some real talent. You know the kind that makes the team a winner.

Jim Miller
Jim Miller

That was a real classy thing to do, nice job Islanders.

Scott Weinstein
Scott Weinstein

Nice little interview between periods with Ruttgaizer. The kid (32!!) was truly humbled.

John Richards
John Richards

Would be a nice story if Wang sells the team.

dimaio34
dimaio34

Great story super happy for him. It's guys like this I love. Just loves playing the game. Old school. This new crop feels they gave a right to play and should get top minutes because they were great junior players. Wish hockey was a sport not a business. Good work Justin.

gleichzahl
gleichzahl

 is he supposed to just make up 'an update on the sale' to make people happy?

camb33
camb33

@John Richards were all about nice stories...like when we let hickey play in front of his hometown Calgary...th highschooler should have been let go after that game...wang like nice guy and nice stories not winning

dimaio34
dimaio34

John your priceless LOL. But yeah we need a new owner!!! So what do ya think of gallant and Scott tomorrow?? Gallant goes for his third win. And does it convincily. Isles killem sun. A 8-3 win

topshelf
topshelf

@gleichzahl  no what i was implying was the sale is HYPE!!!  I just really  hope its not...

David Schwartz
David Schwartz

@camb33 @John Richards  Your dislike of Hickey is so unfounded it borders on crazy. We have many issues at defense but you are really thinking Hickey is one of them?  Stop obsessing over 6 foot plus defenseman because every team in the NHL has a smaller defenseman or two.  

John Richards
John Richards

Not to spoil the thread but why are people jonesing about bringing up a 32 year old Palooka The dumbing down of the fan base makes Wang get away with murder.

John Richards
John Richards

Your vodka infused idiocy is a best comical at worst sycophantic.

John Richards
John Richards

You cannot be as smart as you claim for your defense of the indefensible reveals your true intelligence..

John Richards
John Richards

@shill.give me a break.. Wang needs to go these bs stories are nonsense. Build us a winner or sell.

camb33
camb33

@rmreturns gimme a break...rewarding hard work, here in wang land we reward failure