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Jack Johnson: Hit the Ice, Jack

Jack Johnson: Hit the Ice, Jack

PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

In a sports world populated by prima donnas, L.A. Kings defenseman Jack Johnson is like a sheet of fresh ice. The team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2007 tabled his chance to become a millionaire at 18, when he turned down a contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, who drafted him No. 1 in 2005. The money couldn’t have helped him realize his dream to play collegiate hockey, which he did for two years at the University of Michigan — his mom and maternal grandparents’ alma mater. The choice seemed nothing but reasonable to the 23-year-old baby-faced, Midwestern-polite Johnson (an Indy native).

“I’m a huge Big Ten fan and always wanted to play at U of M, whether it was football or hockey. I knew you only get one chance to be a collegiate athlete, and it was just important to me.”

Johnson has that grounded way of understanding an athlete’s — and sports — place in the real world. If he hadn’t laced up skates as a youngster growing up in a Detroit suburb, and set himself on the path to a career in the NHL, he says, he would have entered the military, as a Marine or a Navy SEAL.

“Those guys are the true heroes. I play hockey.”

Which has been good news for Kings fans, as the 6-foot Johnson patrolled the ice at Staples, making his mark as defenseman who can score, and who had a hand in the Kings’ first taste of postseason play in eight years.

“It’s a long season, and the Playoffs are what hockey is all about. You lay it all on the line, and you find out how good your team is.”

Not quite good enough, as the Kings fell to the Vancouver Canucks in a
six-game series. This young team will have to wait until next year to drink a bit of bubbly from Lord Stanley’s Cup. Indeed, Johnson will have the summer to wonder what might have been. He has certainly considered the feeling of hoisting sports’ toughest trophy to capture. “I think about how I’d spend the day with it,” [as tradition holds] but he is reticent to share the details, worried he might jinx a title. (No matter that years ago, he touched the Cup at the Toronto Hockey Hall of Fame.) “Yeah, I didn’t really think that would ever come back to be a problem. I was a kid. You don’t think you’re really ever gonna hold the Stanley Cup at center ice.”

But so many childhood dreams have already come true. This winter, Johnson won an Olympic silver medal as part of the U.S.’s overachieving performance in the Vancouver Olympics. Those who watched the gold medal game against Canada likely noted the raw disappointment etched on the faces of the American players after the Canadians scored the winning goal in overtime.

“At the time, it was hard to take,” he admits. “We played so hard, and to lose that way. ... But looking back, I am really happy with my silver. It was the greatest experience.”

Johnson had a great scoring opportunity in the second period, skating from his own end in on Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo (ironically, the goalie the Kings faced in the first round of the Playoffs) and shooting the puck — right into Luongo’s pads. Of the play, Johnson says, “I just decided that I was going to try to make something happen.”

Johnson was also determined to take part in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. “I figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The NHL schedule doesn’t always allow for participating, but this time, the stars were just aligned, and it’s a two-hour flight to Vancouver; I didn’t have a game that next day — lots of things came together to make it work. I was lucky, and I wanted to take full advantage of the Olympics.”

As Johnson prepared to march into the stadium, the gravitas of this
tournament hit him. “I thought, ‘I am an Olympian.’ I was as excited at that moment as I was when I learned I’d made the team. Coming out and marching in, [with silver medalist speedskater and new pal Chad Hedrick and snowboarding magnate Shaun White] all I saw was the U.S. flag waving. I got an adrenaline rush, and at that moment, knew this was real, and I felt ready to play.”

When Johnson exited Vancouver, he not only walked away with the well-earned hardware, but he also sent home the mother lode of Olympic souvenirs: “I put all of my gear — my jerseys, my stick from my last game, gloves, helmet, my lockerroom nameplate — in a huge garbage bag and sent it home with my family.” He proudly plans to display one day his Olympic medal and jersey in his home.

Post-Olympics was difficult, Johnson admits. “It was a bit of a transition to go home. It wasn’t hard hitting guys from my team who were playing for the Canadians, for instance . ... Back in L.A., I had to become their teammate again. I was also coming back from such a high, having worked on the biggest stage, and it felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. I did have to regroup.”

Something he did only days after the Kings’ early exit from the Playoffs: Johnson didn’t return to his South Bay home to watch the Stanley Cup play out. Instead, he headed to Cologne, Germany, where he again proudly wore a Team USA jersey, as he and the U.S. team were fighting for an International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship. Unfortunately, the U.S. squad didn’t advance to the medal round, so Johnson may now be back in his beachtown home, where he says, “I’ve carved out my own niche. I don’t do the Hollywood thing.”

He doesn’t do the Southern California thing, either, as Johnson, who says he’s a good swimmer, never goes into the ocean. “I’m afraid of what’s in there. I’m a pool guy.”

He does occasionally head up to L.A., mostly when friends arrive and then Johnson plays tour guide. “I’m happy to take them to Santa Monica, Venice, the piers ... or I go watch some USC football buddies practice. But mostly, I hang out at home.”

Typically, in June Johnson returns to his second home to take up his summer job: He is again a student at U of M, and spends a semester in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his parents and younger brother, Kenny, 12, live. “I’m back, finishing my degree in general studies.”

When Johnson retires from hockey (“when I’m 40”), hopefully with his name inscribed on the Cup, he wants to remain involved in the sport he so loves.

“I think I’d could coach, or be an assistant or even just volunteer. I’d
like to help [the University of] Michigan’s college program in some way.
Again, fans see a young man who understands what’s important in life; the professional, giving back in some way, even as a volunteer, to the sport he loves. One wouldn’t expect anything less.