DENVER — Jack Johnson is having the spring of his life — on and off the ice.
Colorado’s veteran defenseman waited 16 years to finally be playing in the Stanley Cup Final, which the Avalanche lead 1-0 over Tampa Bay heading into Saturday’s Game 2.
At the same time, Johnson realized another childhood dream — graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in general studies.
It was a long — and somewhat ironic — road to both achievements. Johnson was drawn toward an education thinking he’d never make it in pro hockey. Turns out, he would reach the pinnacle of both personal and professional success at the same time.
“What did it take me, 18 years [to finish]? Most people are at least a doctor at that point,” Johnson joked. “As a little kid, I never really thought I’d be good enough to play in the NHL. I grew up dreaming of playing college hockey at Michigan, I wanted to graduate from there. It meant a lot to me. [To] graduate, [I’m] pretty proud of that.”
Despite his early doubts about a potential NHL future, Johnson was drafted third overall by Carolina in 2005. Instead of immediately turning pro, the Indiana native opted to spend the next two years playing for legendary coach Red Berenson at Michigan.
“I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity at any point,” Johnson said. “And then after my freshman year, I just didn’t think I was physically ready enough for the NHL. I wanted to enjoy another year at the University of Michigan. To be quite honest, I wasn’t ready to leave a major university to play in the minors. I had the time of my life there and I don’t regret it one bit.”
Johnson didn’t depart for the NHL in 2007 without making a final pledge.
“I made a promise to Red Berenson that I was going to finish,” Johnson said. “So, I called him as soon as I did.”
Over the years, Johnson used offseason downtime to go back for spring terms or complete online classes. The COVID-19 pandemic helped with that, allowing Johnson to take courses virtually that would normally have been staged in person.
While the Avalanche have enjoyed a long run in this postseason, that hasn’t been the norm through Johnson’s career. Over stints with Los Angeles, Columbus, Pittsburgh and the Rangers, Johnson had made the playoffs only six times before this season.
He was an unrestricted free agent last summer when Colorado brought Johnson to training camp on a professional tryout. He made the Avalanche roster and signed a league-minimum, one-year, $750,000 contract. Johnson appeared in 74 regular-season games, notching one goal and nine points.
Johnson wasn’t in the picture when Colorado began its postseason run. He was a healthy scratch throughout the Avalanche’s first-round sweep of Nashville. But when Samuel Girard broke his sternum midway through Colorado’s second-round matchup against St. Louis, Johnson got the nod and has been in the lineup since.
Now he’s a third-pairing staple in the Cup Final.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” Johnson said of Game 1. “I tried to stay pretty calm, cool and collected going into it, just knowing it’s another hockey game and the adrenaline’s going to get going once I got out there on the ice with the atmosphere and fans. It was pretty incredible. We’re enjoying it, staying in the moment, but there’s a lot of work ahead of us here.”
Fortunately, hard work doesn’t scare Johnson. He can get through statistics (“hardest course, hands down”) the same as he can make a key shot block (which happened during the Lightning’s first-period power play in Game 1).
If the journeyman has learned anything, it’s to always enjoy the ride.
“It’s incredibly special,” Johnson said of playing for the Cup. “You never know if you’re going to get an opportunity to play for it. And we’ve worked so hard this year to get to this point where we now have an opportunity. You never know if you’re going to get back here. It took me this long to get a chance here. It’s special and we’re trying to make the most of it.”