Meet Jack Johnson, the promising defenseman who joined the Blue Jackets lineup late last season. Does he have what it takes to turn our floundering franchise into an NHL contender?
Tessa Berg photo
As the National Hockey League’s lockout reached its sixth week, Jack Johnson had already had enough.
His seventh season as an NHL defenseman should have started 17 days earlier. But instead of lacing up his skates at Nationwide Arena, the Blue Jackets No. 7 was on the ice at the University of Michigan with some old college teammates.
Instead of jetting off to California to face the Anaheim Ducks, Johnson spent weekends in Minnesota, watching his younger brother play boarding school hockey.
On Oct. 28, an antsy Johnson hammered out a statement on his website to fans and hockey owners, summing up his feelings on a lockout he couldn’t believe was real.
“I want to work!” he wrote. “I’m a professional athlete and I want to play hockey! ... I value every day in this job and take my commitment to my team very seriously. I give it my all every shift. I come to play every night and I leave it all on the ice. This is my responsibility as an individual, an athlete and a professional. I have a duty to my team, the organization that has given me this opportunity, and the fans in the stands to give them my best at all times.”
“You could see a real professional side to Jack. He doesn’t look at it as
a job—he looks at it as a game he loves to play.”
— Todd Richards,
Blue Jackets coach
It took 113 painstaking days to get his wish.
The Blue Jackets took to the ice Jan. 19 for an abbreviated 48-game season with a drastically revamped, baby-faced roster featuring more unfamiliar names than a kindergarten class. Johnson is a veteran at age 26—American-born and Michigan-raised, whose robust physique, 2010 Olympic silver medal and leadership of the 2010 U.S. men’s national team have earned him the nickname “Captain America.”
Johnson, secured last season from eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, has proven he has what it takes to win—and he believes the Blue Jackets do, too, even while the team struggles to regain lost fans and momentum.
“We have to play to win, not play to not lose,” he says. “There is a huge difference. It’s an exciting brand of hockey that brings people to games, and that is the only way we can start to grow the fan base back up.
“The best way repay our fans—the only way—is to win hockey games.”
Winning at hockey has long been a way of life for Johnson, who quickly excelled after putting his first stick to puck at age 5. By 13 he left his home 40 minutes south of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for top-tier hockey instruction at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota.
While most players of his caliber would head into the NHL training grounds of junior hockey, Johnson only ever wanted to wear the maize and blue of the University of Michigan, his mother’s alma mater. He verbally committed to the Wolverines at 15, and maintained that commitment even after his No. 3 selection by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft—just two picks behind future NHL star Sidney Crosby.
“About halfway through my draft year … I realized I could possibly do this for a living, and it threw a monkey wrench into my whole life plan,” says Johnson, whose father played hockey for the University of Wisconsin. “I knew I was not ready emotionally or physically to become a professional. My dream was to go to Michigan. There was no amount of money that could have changed my mind.”
Carolina tried to get Johnson to go pro after his freshman season and, when he declined, the team traded his rights to the Kings. A year later, after setting the Michigan record for the most single-season goals by a sophomore defenseman (16), and being named the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Best Offensive Defenseman, Johnson was finally ready to head to the next level.
He played his last collegiate game March 24, 2007, losing in the West Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Five days later, he was on the ice for Los Angeles against the Vancouver Canucks.
“I was a deer in the headlights the first game,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t know a single person on either team. I didn’t even know the coaches’ names.”
Johnson, who played 74 games for the Kings in 2007-2008, was immediately recognized as a defensive force who could also score. Although a shoulder injury curtailed his playing to just 41 games the next season, in 2009-2010 he not only played 80 games for the Kings, he helped lead the U.S. team to a silver medal in the Vancouver Olympic Games.
“It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done, my greatest accomplishment,” he says. “To say I was a U.S. Olympian is something that can never be taken away.”
Life with the Kings, however, was not as gratifying. A Midwesterner at heart, Southern California life was like nothing he had ever experienced. Coming from a sports city like Detroit, Johnson says the ambivalence toward the Kings was hard to take.
Once, at an LA restaurant, a diner recognized Johnson.
“This guy plays for the Kings,” the diner called out.
Another diner looked at him and asked, “Sacramento?”
“It’s a bandwagon town,” Johnson says. “But it was an eye-opener for me to go to a place where you would have a playoff game and not even make the 11 o’clock news.”
Still, Johnson was committed to the Kings and asked for a no-trade clause during his contract renewal in January 2011. The Kings said no, and a year later, Johnson was told to pack his bags for Columbus.
“I had an idea a trade was coming,” he says. “When I found out it was Columbus, it took me about 30 seconds to realize it was a really cool opportunity.”
A three-hour drive from home meant his friends and family could easily see him play. And he’d have snow again at Christmas, he jokes.
But winter weather was not the only bleak thing about Columbus when Johnson arrived Feb. 23, 2012. The team had lost a staggering 42 out of 60 games, and had already been eliminated from playoff contention with a third of the season left.
Johnson wasn’t fazed.
“The first thing that came through from him was excitement to be here,” says Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards. “You could see a real professional side to Jack. He doesn’t look at it as a job—he looks at it as a game he loves to play.”
He came in playing hard and infused energy and an attitude that says winning is a mandate, not an option. The team responded by capturing 10 of its last 22 games.
“Jack had a transformative effect,” adds Aaron Portzline, who covers the Blue Jackets for The Columbus Dispatch. “When he arrived, the situation seemed hopeless. The morale was gone with still weeks of games to play. Jack not only says the right things, but his attitude prompted the rest of the room to believe that the rest of the season mattered. More than anything, it was a much-needed infusion of professional pride.”
That professionalism was perhaps most evident when Johnson had to watch as his former Kings teammates—and former Jacket Jeff Carter, whom he’d been traded for—finish their 2011-2012 season hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Those who figured Johnson would now be just another disgruntled star player who felt punished by a spot on the Blue Jackets roster could not have been more wrong.
“I don’t feel I missed out on anything,” he says. “It’s a better environment for me. I would not trade a Stanley Cup for the feeling I have here. I fully believe we will win one in my time.”
But Johnson was fairly bitter about the NHL owners’ lockout of the players.
“When we were initially locked out, I thought we are not that far apart. Then it just kept going on and on. I thought it was completely unnecessary,” he says.
While Johnson recognizes the Jackets may have lost fans in the protracted break, he was shocked by the crowd filling the Nationwide Ice Haus stands to capacity and lining up two-deep around the glass on first day of training camp in January.
“I’ve never seen anything like that first day,” he says. “In LA, there would be friends and family, but nothing like that. Columbus didn’t miss a beat.”
Johnson is working to infuse his goals into his Blue Jackets team that lost its top offensive scorer after Rick Nash’s trade to the New York Rangers. While the old Jackets rejoiced over their lone, fruitless playoff appearance in 2008-2009, Johnson says anything less than winning your last game isn’t good enough.
“You’re supposed to make the playoffs,” he says. “Half the league makes the playoffs. It’s insane to say your goal is to make the playoffs. I’m not here to hang division banners. I’m here to hang Stanley Cup banners.”
That attitude has already caught the eye of John Davidson, the former NHL goalie who rebuilt the St. Louis Blues into a contender and was hired in October as the Jackets’ president of hockey operations.
“Jack loves the game, loves the sport and loves to work to make his game better,” Davidson says. “He is gifted with the ability to compete, has strength and skating skills [and] shoots the puck well.
“We need to make sure as we rebuild that we keep people like that, people who have a team-first mentality.”
Johnson recognizes the current season’s challenges, not the least of which will be renewing a relationship with fans who may be fed up after the league’s third lockout in less than 20 years. But he believes maintaining a positive attitude, and remembering hockey is a game first and foremost, will help the Jackets reach heights only before imagined.
“It’s not going to change overnight,” he says. “[But] things are moving in the right direction. It’s not going to take as long as people think.”
Freelance writer Nicole Kraft teaches journalism at Ohio State.
Captain, My Captain
The trade of All-Star Rick Nash means the Jackets not only lost their most prolific scorer—they also lost their captain. Jack Johnson’s name has oft been floated by fans as the best fit for a “C,” although the team says it will likely not award the role this season.
There’s still a lot to assess, says John Davidson, Blue Jackets president of hockey operations. He views the transition as an opportunity for veteran players to mentor newcomers, and a chance for Johnson to show his potential.
“I know Jack is a worker,” Davidson says. “He has no problem going into a weight room and working. Young people will see that and follow his example. That’s a good thing.”
Johnson appreciates the fan support, but also recognizes leadership has already been shown by more veteran teammates, such as fellow defenseman James Wisniewski, and last season’s alternate captains, Vinny Prospal and R.J. Umberger.
“There are so many guys more than qualified to be the leader of the team that there won’t be one leader,” Johnson says. “As a group, we are more than any one could ever be.”
Johnson on Johnson
What’s in a Number? My dad wore No. 3, so that’s what I wore in high school, college and in LA. When I came to Columbus, No. 3 wasn’t available, and No. 7 fell into my lap. It grew on me.
At Home: I like to hang out with my younger brother, Kenny.
At home we go out on the lake and play tennis.
Away from the Rink: Sometimes I think I’m pretty boring. I’m kind of a gym rat. I hang out with the guys I work out with. I hang out with guys who play other professional sports—people who play for the Steelers, Cardinals. They are all former Michigan athletes. We train together and hang out.
Vroom, Vroom: I’m kind of a car nut. I have two Ferraris—a California and an f430. One is my dad’s and one is mine, but we will trade off. If it’s a nice day and I’m just sitting around the house, I’ll take the car out for a drive. I get more enjoyment out of that than a video game.
Leaving Home: I was 14 when I went to Minnesota. The first year in the dorms, it was really hard. But I wouldn’t be here today if I had not made that decision.
Parental Support: My parents rented a place near school my second and third year. My younger brother is 12 years younger than me. Because of the age difference, they didn’t want us growing up not knowing each other. My dad doesn’t miss many of my games. If he’s not here in person, he’s watching on TV.
Ohio State: I grew up an Andy Katzenmoyer fan. I have his jersey in red and white. For fun, I love to go to college football games. And I’ll be rooting for the Buckeyes—unless they are playing Michigan.
Michigan Studies: I’m still working toward my degree in literature studies and arts. I’m less than 30 credits away.
Favorite Jack Johnson Song: “Bubble Toes”