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Jack Johnson: A Wolverine in Buckeye Country

10/21/2013, 2:00pm MDT
By Dan Hickling - Special to USAHockey.com

Can a Wolverine flourish in the land of the Buckeyes?

Big Ten rivalries being what they are, it would hardly seem likely.

The enmity in Columbus for all things Maize and Blue runs deep, and you won’t find much Scarlet and Gray being worn (not in public, at least) in most parts of Michigan.

Even so, defenseman Jack Johnson can claim a dual citizenship of sorts — as an alum of the University of Michigan and as a horse on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ blue line.

Johnson slides between both facets of his life as if he was making that slick first pass out of his own zone.

“I get my fair share of kidding,” said Johnson, 26, who was born in Indianapolis but grew up mostly in Michigan. “I’d be disappointed if I didn’t. But everyone [in Columbus] has treated me so well that it really has become home. It’s nice going back to the Midwest, where I’m from. Even though it’s Buckeye Country, it’s still Big Ten Country. It’s pretty normal for me.”

Normalcy has been a little hard to come for Johnson, at least in his NHL life.

He was drafted third overall in 2005 by the Carolina Hurricanes but never played a single shift for them. Instead, Johnson was dished to the Los Angeles Kings, where he played for nearly five full seasons.

Then, in 2012, while the Kings were skating toward their first Stanley Cup championship, Johnson was traded to Columbus for sniper Jeff Carter. While Johnson did not get a diamond-studded Cup ring for his Tinseltown service, he did receive a new lease on life with a Jackets team that was stockpiling talent in hopes of making itself a Cup contender.

Now, with a complete training camp and a whole (non-lockout) season to look forward to, Johnson said he feels totally at home in Columbus.

“I felt pretty settled last year,” said Johnson, one of the Jackets’ alternate captains. “But it is nice to have a full camp and full regular season with your team. Everything is settled and everything feels great. Everything seems pretty normal for me now.”

As at ease as Johnson is in pulling one a Blue Jackets sweater, he is just as at home in one with “USA” emblazoned on the front.

Johnson has represented the U.S. on 11 different occasions in a nine-year span. World Juniors, World Championships, Olympic Games. You name it, he’s done it, and he has the passport stamps to prove it.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of unknowns with me,” he said. “USA Hockey’s kind of groomed me from the beginning. I’m kind of a complete product with them.”

The grooming process began in 2003-04 in Ann Arbor, Mich., when Johnson joined the U.S. National Team Development Program. Johnson points to his time in 2004-05 with U.S. Under-18 squad, coached by Ron Rolston (now coach of the Buffalo Sabres), as a pivotal part of his development.

“That was one of the best years of my life,” said Johnson, who was a high school senior committed to Michigan that year. “I have a lot of great memories playing for them. The training they give you is unlike any [other] place. It was more of the off-ice development than on ice. When you go to college you’ve already played a full college season. You don’t go in as a freshman. You’re advanced beyond your years [by then], and that’s the whole point of it.”

Rolston said what sets Johnson apart from most NHL defensemen now was evident even then.

“He’s a competitor with real good offensive skill,” Rolston said. “[He] shoots the puck well. He’s in a leadership role for them [the Blue Jackets], and he was with us.”

Johnson, who earned a silver medal with Team USA in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, is gunning for a spot on the Sochi squad for this winter.

Yet, he said, unless he takes care of matters on the Columbus back line, any time thinking about the Olympic would be better spend elsewhere.

“It’s obviously in the back of your head,” he said, “but it can’t completely consume you. You’ve got to do your job with your team. If you take care of things with your team, the other stuff will take care of itself. I don’t think there’s a lot they don’t know about me. It’s the biggest stage you can possibly play on, so I don’t think anyone is not thinking about it.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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