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Nice feature on Erik Johnson


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Blues' 'savior' stays humble

By Stu Durando



MINNEAPOLIS — The ice at Mariucci Arena had emptied after 75 minutes of practice, and all that remained were a smattering of pucks, a bucket and 18-year-old Erik Johnson, backed by the sound of an idling Zamboni.

The University of Minnesota freshman skated in random loops, collecting the stray pucks to store for the next day's workout.

When the ice had been cleared, Johnson stepped off and apologized to a guest for the prolonged wait.

"My day for pucks," he explained.

This is the life the Bloomington, Minn., native chose after the Blues made him the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NHL draft.

Instead of collecting upward of $850,000, the league's maximum salary for a first-year player, Johnson is attending classes, rooming with a friend of 10 years and playing for the No. 1 college hockey team in the country.

The big defenseman has blended into the lifestyle while providing few hints that he is considered — in the words of letter-writing Blues fans — the future "savior" of the St. Louis franchise.

"You're a freshman, so you have to haul the extra bags and take turns picking up pucks," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "They know what day is theirs. There are no issues with that at all.

"He's humble, has a good work ethic and has his priorities right. It's nice to see a guy who's got a 'special player' tag, but you can't tell if he's a top player or a fifth-line guy. There's no ego.''

After becoming the first No. 1 draft pick to play college hockey, the question that looms largest for Johnson is whether he will take the Blues' money after one year or return to Minnesota for a second season. Nothing is a given. There's even the remote possibility that he could join the Blues for the last few games of the season, but only if the Gophers are knocked out of the playoffs early.

Although his grade-point average his first semester was better than 3.0 and he has told his mother he likes his classes, Johnson scoffs at the idea that he is at Minnesota for the education.

He is playing on a team loaded with childhood hockey buddies, but doesn't feel a lure to stick around for the camaraderie. And the Gophers' ability to reach the Frozen Four in St. Louis or win a national championship won't be a factor.

"I had to make a decision based on whether I was ready," Johnson said. "I don't think I was yet. I needed some time to find myself here and mature and be a better hockey player. ... No one on the hockey team is here to go to school. You get a good education, but everyone is here for hockey.

"We'll see how I do this season and look at it from the standpoint if I'm going to be able to make a significant impact right away, or any at all. Money is a side factor. Money will always be there."

Johnson then placed the odds on his departure from Minnesota at 50-50, hesitated and leaned slightly toward "60-40 of going to St. Louis."

A childhood dream

Johnson is at Minnesota largely because it was his dream from an early age. He began attending games at the age of 4, and his father, Bruce, said his son had Gophers jerseys, hats, pants, mittens and a doll.

Those games helped spark Erik's interest in the game. He was further motivated by stories of his great uncle, Ken Yackel, who played at Minnesota and won a silver medal with the 1952 Olympic team.

"When I was 5 or 6, I wanted to switch my middle name to Yackel," he said. "I wanted to have that name with me."

Johnson stuck with Robert, but he hopes to have started down a similar path of success. That potential wasn't obvious for quite a while. In fact, the whole idea of an NHL career didn't become apparent until a few years ago.

"At 15 he was in the USA select development program, and we thought, 'Gee, he's pretty competitive among the U.S. kids,'" Bruce Johnson said. "But really the first time we heard about the NHL was at 15 or 16, and I said, 'That's ridiculous.' "

Because Johnson was shy as a child, Bruce Johnson said, his son started hockey in a recreational league instead of a more competitive level. After two years he moved to a higher echelon and met Kyle Okposo, his roommate and the No. 7 pick in last year's draft by the New York Islanders.

Johnson was fully immersed in the sport, playing in the garage on in-line skates when Bruce would flood the yard at night and let it ice over for the next day.

But one of the better decisions Erik ever made, said his mother, came when he opted out of a competitive summer league before sixth grade. He informed his parents when he was at home and they were on a vacation.

"He called and said, 'I'm not going,'" Peggy Johnson said. "We said we'd talk about it when we came home, and it was clear. He has said it was the best summer of his life. He went with a good friend to their cabin and went fishing and boating. That was key. If he had (played), that might have killed the passion."

Hockey as business

By the time he was in high school at Academy of Holy Angels in Bloomington, Johnson looked like a prospect. He ultimately worked his way to the U.S. national team development program, which meant leaving home for two years to train and attend high school in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He played for coach John Hynes, who showed him a side of hockey that Johnson had yet to experience and altered his outlook forever.

"He ran our team into the ground the first year," Johnson said. "We'd have two-hour practices and lift for two hours. It was really intense, but it helped me big time. When I got there I was more a finesse player, and he emphasized to play with an edge and use my size."

At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, Johnson has good speed and quickness. He's often compared to former Blues stalwart Chris Pronger.

Johnson said Ann Arbor is where he began to view hockey as a business. He was there for school as well, but his approach to practices and preparation changed.

"Work ethic was never a problem," Hynes said. "He has a strong desire to play the game better. He bought into building his body and fitness."

At Minnesota, Johnson is learning about more of the demands.

Every game is televised in the hockey-crazy Twin Cities, where the Gophers are one of the bigger sports stories. Johnson receives fan mail every day and faces a steady stream of interview requests.

"In many ways this is a good spot for him because it's like a miniature NHL franchise," Lucia said. "We're followed like an NHL team. He's learning on the ice and to deal with the media."

Staying home

Johnson has played hockey in Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Canada and Holland. But the decision to go to Minnesota wasn't all that difficult, and was agreed upon by everyone involved from the Blues to family.

Lucia has not given advice about the next step, but he has a definite opinion about what might be best for Johnson.

"I think it would be in his best interest developmentally to be here playing 25, 28 minutes a game," he said. "How many defensemen are playing in the NHL at 19?"

This season Johnson said he feels "like I'm having a down year." With one goal and 15 assists in 24 games, he is disappointed in his offensive production. But he is a part of a unit that ranks fourth in the country in scoring defense.

"Some people in Minnesota expected me to come in here and score 20 goals in the first game and win the Hobey Baker Award unanimously after Christmas," he said. "It's not realistic."

Johnson enjoys his current comfort level while he develops his game. He goes home for dinner a couple of times a week. He plays "mini sticks" hockey in his parents' basement with his sister, Christina. He skates at a local rink near the house.

And even Bruce Johnson claims to have no idea what is next for his son.

"Those things will be decided in April," he said. "He and I haven't talked about it one bit. I think he's just enjoying himself."

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I'm guessing he's gone after this year.

Sounds like he's already leaning that way, but I can't say I blame him I guess.


Johnson then placed the odds on his departure from Minnesota at 50-50, hesitated and leaned slightly toward "60-40 of going to St. Louis."

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