Avalanche's Erik Johnson knows he better 'make it count' after years of pain, sacrifices

Avalanche’s Erik Johnson knows he better ‘make it count’ after years of pain, sacrifices

DENVER — From afar, there may be no bigger Colorado Avalanche fan right now than Cody McLeod.

McLeod spent the first 10 seasons of his 12-year NHL career giving an Avs’ sweater, so he’s cheering on ex-teammates like Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. But the one guy he’s really rooting for is Erik Johnson, who has spent 12 years in Colorado, endured the ups and downs of winning seasons and downright miserable seasons and especially the hardship of a lengthy list of injuries that culminated last year with Johnson questioning if he’d ever step foot on an NHL sheet of ice again.

For seven of his years in Colorado, McLeod witnessed the sacrifice Johnson, a hard-nosed, physical, great-skating, right-shot defenseman, made on the ice and during his continuous trips in and out of the trainer’s room.

“Concussions, knees, shoulders. He’s had it all,” said McLeod, who most recently captained the Iowa Wild during his third and likely final season of pro hockey. “This is one very driven guy, and he had to keep working to get back in the lineup over and over again in his career and he had really a heck of a year this year. It’s good to see because there were some tough years there in Colorado, not just with the injuries for Erik, but some very tough seasons.”

Johnson, 34, the longest-tenured Denver athlete with 900 combined regular-season and playoff games under his belt, has missed exactly 200 regular-season games and 22 playoff games (including the entire 2018 and 2021 playoffs) in his Avs career due to injury, illness or suspension. That doesn’t include the several games he missed during his St. Louis Blues tenure, which included a torn ACL and MCL for the 2006 No. 1 pick after an offseason golf cart accident.

But it was the adversity Johnson faced last year that was the hardest by far and it was that adversity he overcame last year that makes having the chance to win a Stanley Cup in the next week or so all the sweeter for the ultimate team player.

On Jan. 30, 2021, in his fourth game of the season, Johnson was checked hard by Minnesota Wild left wing Jordan Greenway. Johnson landed on the ice hard with the left side of his face taking the brunt of the smack.

Johnson sustained a concussion, his season was over and there were plenty of dark days during his recovery.

“The hit was fine. I just landed right on my face,” Johnson said. “It just never really got better. … It was all just not very fun to go through. Once I felt normal, the hockey left came back. That was great. It wasn’t like a rock bottom, but it was just a bad feeling throughout the entire process.”

Last year’s misery has caused Johnson a lot of reflection lately.

“It’s been quite the 180,” he said.

Johnson and the Avs missed the playoffs in six of his first seven years and tough times began immediately. Johnson arrived from St. Louis with the Avs in the midst of a 10-game losing streak. They finally won a game, then they lost another 10 in a row during a 68-point season that at least earned them Landeskog, now their captain, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft. In 2013, the Avs finished 29th in the NHL, but the Avs won the lottery and landed the superstar MacKinnon. In 2017, the Avs had a humiliating 48-point season. The Avs then “lost” the lottery, slipped from what should have been the No. 1 pick to No. 4 and their consolation prize for that “bad luck” was drafting … Cale Makar.

It’s amazing how far the Avs have come since a 2016-17 season in which Johnson said, “Some guys wanted out, some guys wanted a fresh start, and that was their right. But we all wanted to stick together and try and get it done. That’s an extra special feeling because we really put in the work and you want to see that work come to fruition.

“… Some injuries and things that happened along the way, and you never know if that opportunity’s going to come. I’m just soaking it all in and trying to embrace the moment and just having a lot of fun. You just never know when that opportunity’s going to come. It’s been 900 games, 15 years.”

That’s why when Arturri Lehkonen scored that series-clinching overtime winner to complete a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals, it was Johnson who was most visibly moved by the victory. He talked about his tumultuous journey after the game and was almost brought to tears.

Born and bred in Minnesota, he has made Colorado his adopted home. He’s an Av through and through, even waiving his no-move clause in last year’s expansion draft to make sure the Avs could protect Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard.

“I’ve been here a long time,” Johnson said. “This is where I live now. It’s where I’ll always live.”

The Avs are up 1-0 in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final with Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night. Johnson calls the Avs a “dialed-in, confident, hungry group.”

They’re rolling along with a 13-2 record in the playoffs and Johnson, who has been outstanding in the playoffs alongside young partner Bowen Byram, knows more than anybody that the time is now and the Avs must take advantage of this opportunity.

“I think the guys’ heads are in the right places,” he said. “Maybe as an older player, you might appreciate it a little bit more because it’s taken me and some other guys a lot longer to have this chance, and as a younger player — not that it’s easy, but you might think, ‘OK, this will happen again.’

“But I think you really need to appreciate the moment. It’s not easy to get here, and you don’t know if you’ll be back, so I just think that mindset that we need to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s rare. It’s hard to do, even though Tampa’s shown that they can do it three years in a row. Just embrace the moment, embrace the challenge and you might only get one crack at this. Make it count.”

If the Avs do win the Stanley Cup, there’s been a lot of chatter as to which player Landeskog, as captain, would hand the Cup off to second.

In a pre-series poll of The Athletic hockey writers, 37.2 percent guessed MacKinnon. That’s also the Vegas betting odds favourite. But, 27.9 percent of our writers thing Johnson.

It makes sense. He’s the longest-tenured Avalanche player, been through all the losses, heartache and injuries and he’s close friends with Landeskog.

“It’s special, no doubt,” Landeskog said of sharing this experience with Johnson. “He’s been there since my first training camp. He was my first roommate on the road. And now we’re sitting here 11 years later and we’re (in) the finals. Obviously, it’s very special. I mean, I’d probably be lying if I told you that I thought we’d be here one day during the ’16-17 season. That was hard especially and that was as close to rock bottom as you can come when it comes to playing in the NHL.”

Johnson has one year left on his contract paying him $6 million. It expires just in time for MacKinnon to get a new contract. So Johnson is realistic that while he may currently be the longest-tenured Denver athlete, he says with a wink, “Gabe will probably overtake me here in the near future.”

Regardless of if Johnson gets the Cup handed to him second, third or dead last, as long as he gets to grab hold of that precious Cup, you know Johnson won’t care one iota.

He’d hoist it over his head as if it weighs as much as a feather.

Johnson admits there’d be a void in his career if he doesn’t win the Cup, so if he gets to experience that moment, he would make all that sacrifice and all that losing and all the battle scars and all the surgeries and pain completely worth it.

The man with a gap in his teeth, McLeod says, “would be grinding ear to ear.”

(Photo by Erik Johnson: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)

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