Johnson said Hinote told him how he’d won the Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 and thought, “Aw, this is a piece of cake. I got here my first year. We’ll be back again. We ‘ll do this again, for sure.”
“He never made it back, so I’m just trying to let these young guys know that the time is now,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to soak this opportunity up and make the most of it.”
The Avalanche are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001 and will play the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 1 will be at Ball Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Johnson is in the Cup Final for the first time in his 14-season NHL career. The 34-year-old defenseman is the longest-serving member of the Avalanche, going back to his arrival from the Blues via trade on Feb. 19, 2011.
His journey illustrates the power of perseverance and the desire to win.
“It’s really hard to get here,” Johnson said. “Not everyone gets the chance to play for the Stanley Cup, so from that standpoint, I’m just grateful and lucky to be here. It takes a lot of work, a lot of timing and a lot of good luck to get here.
“I’ve had a lot of years here, some good, some bad, a lot of injuries. You know, when you go through some downs, you’re never sure what light is going to be at the end of the tunnel.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to stick it through and see this team from the worst to the best and now hopefully end it with the Stanley Cup.”
Johnson has played for two general managers and three coaches in his 12 seasons in Colorado. He has had more than 170 teammates.
The Avalanche have sunk to the bottom of the NHL, finishing second-to-last in 2012-13 and last in 2016-17. They have risen to the top in the regular season, finishing third in 2019-20, first in 2020-21 and second this season.
Six times, they missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Twice, they have lost in the first round. Three times, they have lost in the second round.
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Johnson has played 654 regular-season and 42 playoff games for the Avalanche. He ranks first in blocked shots in the regular season (1,259) and playoffs (80) in team history. He’s third in hits in the regular season (1,148), fourth in the playoffs (111).
It has taken a toll. He has had busted teeth and broken feet, broken kneecaps and torn knee ligaments, dislocated shoulders and dislocated fingers, high-ankle sprains and concussions. He has had surgery on each shoulder, two surgeries on one knee, two surgeries in his mouth.
After missing all but four regular-season games last season, he wasn’t sure he would keep playing.
“I was just kind of thinking to myself, ‘Do I really want to keep putting my body through all this with all I’ve been through?’ Johnson said. “Thankfully, this year I’ve been healthy, I haven’t been hurt, and it’s just been a lot of fun to be out there. Being healthy helps a lot, not having things to deal with, so it’s been good.”
Johnson played 77 games in the regular season and has played in all 14 of Colorado’s games in the playoffs, still sacrificing his body. He led the Avalanche in blocked shots (136) and hits (165) in the regular season, and he’s second in both blocked shots (22) and hits (54) in the playoffs.
“That’s just kind of in my DNA,” Johnson said. “I mean, if you can block a shot, you block it. If you’re going to hit someone, you’re going to hit them. You don’t envision being the franchise leader in blocked shots…”
“But sometimes that’s just the way the cards fall,” he continued. “You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get to win, and you just have to do everything you can.”
Johnson has evolved. The Blues selected him No. 1 in the 2006 NHL Draft, and he was a No. 1 defenseman for the Avalanche for years. Over time, he has adapted to less offense, more defense and fewer minutes. He doesn’t have to be “The Guy” anymore.
He has become a mentor to younger defensemen like Bowen Byram, Samuel Girard and Hold Makar. He goes to dinner with them on the road and jokes around with them in the locker room, because he doesn’t want them to be intimidated by older players and believes a comfortable, happy player is a productive player.
“He’s put in a lot of work,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, the next-longest-tenured member of the Avalanche, who arrived in Colorado as a rookie in 2011-12. “He’s had some tough injury luck the last handful of years. But he just kept his head down and just kept working.
“He’s been leading by example and been a good guy for Cale and ‘Bo’ and ‘G’ and all these guys to lean on. Keeps it light in the locker room, which always helps this time of year when it could get a little nerve-wracking at times.
“So yeah, I know it means a lot to him, and he’s been playing great for us.”
A lot is an understatement.
“You know, if you could culminate this with a Stanley Cup from where I started, it’s what you always dream of,” Johnson said. “So hopefully we can do it.”