Johnson leads normal life despite hype

by Mark Remme

As Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel explains the first drill at practice, Erik Johnson stretches while listening attentively in the midst of his huddled teammates.

The freshman defenseman, wearing a black practice jersey like his fellow blue-liners, attracts little attention with his quiet demeanor as he gets ready for work.

Even with his 6-feet 4-inch, 222-pound frame, Johnson commands no immediate notice as his humble, quiet manner keeps him going about his business with little distraction.

But the truth is, the 18-year-old Johnson lost any signs of hockey anonymity years ago. Anonymity became impossible after the St. Louis Blues selected Johnson with the top pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

“It’s kinda cool how things fall into place and how what I dreamed about could become a reality,” Johnson said. “I’m really grateful and fortunate.”

Yet Johnson goes about his business “unassuming,” as head coach Don Lucia describes him, taking nothing for granted and ingesting as much of the game as he can.

Lucia summed up Johnson’s life at the University perfectly, saying it’s a balancing act of big-time hockey and the education of regular-Joe college life.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Johnson skates underneath the mural of Gophers hockey greats in the northeast corner of Mariucci Arena, including his great-uncle Ken Yackel.

The rest of the week, he is just another face in the Stadium Village crowd.

Like many freshmen living in Territorial Hall, Johnson demonstrates an ordinary-kid mentality day in and day out, despite the hype surrounding his name.

“He’s a low-key guy who likes to chill with his buddies, having a good time and kind of messing around,” teammate Jay Barriball said.

Barriball, who’s known Johnson since their freshman year at the Academy of Holy Angels, said Johnson’s modesty toward his gift on the ice is a testament to his normalcy in the midst of professional hype.

The camaraderie shows as Barriball makes the trip to Johnson’s room on Monday nights to spend a pivotal two-hour block watching Fox’s “Prison Break” and “24.”

Occasionally, the two hear a knock on the door from a visitor, but for the most part, aside from a text message or two, nothing shakes their concentration from the television.

Once Prison Break’s music hits the screen at 7 p.m. sharp, the lights go out and the dorm room door shuts completely.

The first twist of the episode hits. “Unreal start,” Johnson murmurs.

A short paper for class awaits him once the shows are over, but Johnson knows it can wait.

It’s a perk he enjoys as an independent 18-year-old.

“(I like) just hanging out – relaxing in my dorm room,” Johnson said before practice. “Like today, I had just one class in the morning and then went back to my dorm and watched a movie I bought last night.”

Johnson admits to not leaving his dorm much, welcoming others for a visit before he heads to bed around 11 p.m. or midnight.

It’s a formula he uses to put his best foot forward at the rink, a place where he will undoubtedly work as a professional.

Johnson already has that professional attitude toward hockey.

“I treat it as a business,” Johnson said. “It’s probably what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life, and I’ve got to treat it like that.”

But through that “business” outlook, a teenager still emerges in the midst of downtime, and teammates and coaches know it.

While sitting on the bench before practice, assistant coach John Hill throws jokes toward Johnson and razzes him about suddenly liking the Chicago Bears.

“I did not jump on the Bears’ bandwagon,” Johnson shoots back with a grin.

Later, he pokes at teammates with his stick while skating around before practice, playfully tugging at their shin pads as others give him an elbow nudge.

That youthful enthusiasm speaks volumes, and it didn’t go unnoticed by NHL scouts.

Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting for the Blues, said Johnson’s well-liked personality and humbleness stood out just as much as his physical abilities.

“We always say we look for what players have between the ears and in the chest cavity,” he said. “It’s a huge part of it – it defines what’s in your heart.”

Lucia agrees with that sentiment, saying the way Johnson interacts with others gives people the impression he’s just a regular player, not a teenager one signature away from professional hockey.

But before any contracts or endorsement deals are signed, Johnson spends his time studying, watching TV and skating toward the future.

“I’m just like any other college student, except I have one little label on me with the NHL,” Johnson said. “For the most part it’s just like (being) a regular student.”

A regular student with a little more at his fingertips.