When he was a kid growing up in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Jack Johnson was just like all his other friends: a big fan of the Detroit Red Wings. He was 8 years old when the Wings got a new blood rival in the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, and soon all of Johnson’s friends despised the Avs.
And, while he didn’t exactly wear the Avs’ jersey anywhere within Bloomfield Hills city limits, Johnson actually liked the Avs. Or, at least the team’s biggest stars, most especially Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg and, later, Rob Blake. Johnson would later be a teammate with Blake his rookie year of 2006-07 in Los Angeles, and lived with Blake at his palatial Manhattan Beach, Calif., seaside home during the season.
Johnson knew he had a future in the NHL even as a young teen, and so he admired the Avs’ trio of top stars, hoping to eventually get close to their level. As a third overall draft choice by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005, (the same draft Shattuck St. Mary’s teammate Sidney Crosby went first overall) Johnson appeared headed to stardom as well.
Whether Johnson has ever truly fulfilled his potential as a lottery pick is a debatable topic. He’s had two 40-plus point seasons as a defenseman in the NHL, and two others with 30 or more. He’s played on U.S. Olympic teams. He has played 950 NHL games, hoping to enter his 16th season. You don’t play 950 NHL games without being able to play some good hockey.
But he’s played on a lot of losing teams, has been traded twice and had the final three years of a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins bought out last year. After an injury-filled season with the New York Rangers, Johnson wasn’t re-signed and became an unrestricted free agent this summer. After receiving no agreeable offers from anyone, Johnson was reduced to signing a Professional Tryout Contract with the Avalanche. One of the seemingly last guys to believe in him still is Avs GM Sakic.
Funny how things turn out sometimes.
Johnson’s career seemed out to sea following the disappointing year with the Rangers, but things are starting to look a little more terra firma for the 34-year-old. In his first preseason game for the Avs Tuesday night in Vegas, Johnson scored a goal and assisted on another in 20 minutes of ice time. His skating, always renowned, looked good. He may well be the leading candidate to take the roster spot of Devon Toews for as long as he’s out following offseason shoulder surgery. When Toews returns? Johnson might still find consistent work as a 6th D-man on this club. It all depends how he looks against his primary competition for roster spot right now. It’s probably between him and Justin Barron and/or Jacob MacDonald and Kurtis MacDermid.
The betting money? It’s that Johnson will make the squad, Barron will be sent to the Eagles for more seasoning and MacDermid/MacDonald will be a 7th D-man or an occasional forward. No matter what, Johnson says, he’ll be grateful if he’s still around in mid-October.
“I’m at a point in my career where winning is the most important thing,” Johnson said. “This team has as good a chance as anyone.”
Johnson said his personal connection to his days in Columbus with Avs coach Jared Bednar and assistant GM Chris MacFarland had a lot to do with his PTO offer. Johnson spent parts of seven seasons with the Blue Jackets, before signing a five-year, $16.25 million contract with Pittsburgh in 2018. By 2020, the final three years of his deal were bought out.
Johnson was bothered most of last season by a sports hernia. Surgery and other rehab stuff has him “feeling great” about his health again. Could he be a diamond in the 2021 free-agent rough? Still plenty to be determined on that, but Bednar said “I liked Jack Johnson a lot” after the game in Vegas. He might play again Thursday night at Ball Arena, where the Avs will play their first home preseason game.
“I don’t think there’s any more secrets about me as a player anymore. I’ve been around a long time,” Johnson said. “My mindset hasn’t changed much. Just go out and play.”
Johnson’s wife and three children will actually live in Columbus for the time being, while he tries to battle his way onto the Avs. His wife, Kelly, is the sister of former NFL and Broncos quarterback Brady Quinn.
“It’s going to be a bit different in that regard,” Johnson said. “But I’m really happy to be here.”
Terry Frei contributed to this report