Kent Johnson’s dad just can’t wipe the smile off his face.
Ten rows of maroon-coloured seats above the ice, Jay Johnson is intently watching his 20-year-old son wheel around Rogers Arena with his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates, just hours ahead of his first NHL game in front of hometown family and friends from Port Moody.
Just how many, Jay can’t say.
But, he added, he’s dreading his visit to a ticket reseller’s website later in the day to see what he might be able to dig up for some buddies who’ve requested to join the contingent headed to Friday's (Jan. 27) game against the Vancouver Canucks.
Kent Johnson said while he didn’t exactly mark his calendar when the NHL released its schedule last summer, playing against the team he cheered for as a kid — not so many years ago, when the Sedins were still playing — is “really exciting.”
“I always wanted to play in this building, so it’s gonna be cool to come full circle,” he told the Tri-City News.
Johnson is in his first full season with the Blue Jackets, who drafted him fifth overall in the 2021 NHL Draft.
A highly-touted forward who burned up the BC Hockey League (BCHL), scoring 101 points in 52 games in his final season with the Trail Smoke Eaters, then totalled 64 points in 58 games in his two seasons at the University of Michigan, he got a nine-game taste of the NHL late last season after his collegiate season ended.
Johnson said that sampler, along with further chances to play against men at last February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing and the World Hockey Championships a few months later in Helsinki, Finland, helped ease his transition to becoming a full-time professional hockey player.
“It’s been pretty smooth, I’d say.”
In 45 games this season heading into Vancouver, Johnson has nine goals and 14 assists – sixth amongst this year’s crop of NHL rookies.
Likely none of his goals were bigger than the overtime winner he scored Wednesday (Jan. 25) to give the Blue Jackets a 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
The victory earned Johnson and his teammates a day off in Vancouver Thursday (Jan. 26) that the young hero was able to cap off with a family meal at a downtown restaurant.
He said it’s nice to be coming home on the high the overtime goal gave him, but his spirits are always good when he gets on the ice.
“It’s pretty easy to get motivation when you’re in the NHL,” Johnson said. “But obviously this one feels a little bit more special.”
Blue Jackets’ coach Brad Larsen said he’s been pleased with Johnson’s progression, even as the team has struggled through a seemingly endless parade of injuries that has left it mired near the bottom of the league standings.
“He’s growing and improving,” Larsen said, adding Johnson’s ability to slow the game down in his mind and read what is about to happen has advanced significantly from the start of the season.
“He’s got a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger.”
Johnson said he’s just trying to get better and earn more ice time, an aspiration he backs up by generally being the last player off the ice at practices and morning skates. It’s a pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed among his teammates and the Blue Jackets’ travelling crew who needle him when he finally lopes into the dressing room after Friday’s pre-game skate.
“He’s always working on his game,” Larsen said. “He’s got a tremendous skill set.”
Johnson said having a teammate from his Michigan days, Nick Blankenburg, has made that work more fun, and veterans like Columbus captain Boone Jenner have readily taken the team’s young players under their wings.
That’s helped Johnson respond to some of the challenges that have come his way, like being moved to centre from his usual spot on the left wing position for several games when injuries depleted the Blue Jackets’ corps of pivots.
“He’s handled it very well,” said Larsen of the way Johnson’s handled the curves, adding he has “great poise.”
Up in the stands, Jay Johnson surveys the cavernous arena around him. His son may not have marked the calendar for this day, but he sure did.
“It’s pretty exciting.”