Blues defenseman will don USA's
red, white and blue for first time at Winter Olympics
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When Erik Johnson lays down every night to conclude what likely was another day revolving around the game of hockey, he can thank a tennis ball for his ascension towards greatness.
Thousands upon thousands of tennis balls could be heard thumping the walls of Bruce and Peggy Johnson's garage as young son Erik was busy honing in on his hockey skills, not attempting to be the next Pete Sampras or Roger Federer.
But instead of consistently harping on young Erik to go do his homework or get chores done, Mom and Dad allowed Erik to continue his practices. After all, practice makes perfect.
"I always liked it," the 21-year-old Johnson said. "I always knew that's what I wanted to do ever since I was seven or eight years old. My parents would say, 'Go do your homework,' and I'd want to go play outside in the garage and shoot tennis balls and stuff like that."
Erik Johnson's career path towards hockey has had nothing but positive and upward turns. From playing in the hockey hotbed of Minnesota -- he hails from Bloomington, a town of 80,000-plus south, southwest of the Twin Cities -- where Johnson got started at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn. to Ann Arbor, Mich. to play for the United States National Team Developmental Program, playing for two Under-18 World Junior Championships and a U-20 World Championship. Then it was on to the University of Minnesota and then one of the greatest attributes, being the top overall selection of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Blues -- one of five American-born players to accomplish such a feat (Mike Modano, Brian Lawton, Rick DiPietro and Patrick Kane).
Life couldn't be better for Erik Johnson. But the pinnacle of his young career may have occurred in recent months -- United States Olympian.
Johnson and teammate David Backes will don the USA sweaters today when the United States battles Switzerland at 2 p.m.
Dreams were meant to be achieved, and needless to say at such a young age, Johnson continues to fulfill each and every one of them.
"I always had that drive and desire to be in the NHL and eventually being an Olympian," said Johnson, whose uncle Ken Yackel helped the Americans capture the silver medal at the 1952 Olympics in Oslo, Norway. "That was what I was always wanting to do in my head and nothing else mattered except making it in the NHL and making an impact. That's just what I was geared toward and how my mind was growing up. I stopped at nothing to get there."
And right there to see every shot, every shear of the skate blades, every fist-pumping moment will be his Bruce and Peggy Johnson and younger sister Christina along with a few other family members.
And to think, Mom and Dad were there for practices, games, meetings, sacrificing time and money to see their son fulfill a lifelong dream.
"I wouldn't be here without them," Johnson said of his parents. I remember when I was five or six years old as a mite, my dad would get my equipment put on for me and tie my skates. He would never carry my bag, because you always hate to see parents doing that, but my parents were so inspirational and so supportive. Whenever I had a good game, they'd always say I played great. Whenever I had a bad game, I wouldn't hear anything. They'd still say I played well. They were so supportive and never got down on me, never forced the issue to play hockey. It was all up to me. They let me follow my dream."
His dream has taken him to Vancouver.
"It's such a great honor and something I'm really proud of," Johnson said. "It's probably the biggest honor you can get, is being an Olympian. I'm extremely fortunate and really lucky to be a part of the team."
USA General manager Brian Burke, also the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the choice of Johnson was a no-brainer.
"What do I like about him? That's easy -- everything," Burke said. "I think that the sky's the limit for this young man. I think people in St. Louis are aware of what a complete player he is, but I think the hockey world's going to see that now. He's big, he can skate, he's a great kid. He's got a hard shot."
Johnson has had plenty of mentoring here in St. Louis, none other than that of NHL Hall of Famer and former Canadian Olympian Al MacInnis, the Blues' Vice President of Hockey Operations.
"I was older when I played in the Olympics," MacInnis said. "My comparison would be the Stanley Cup playoffs of 1986. I was 24 years old, it was my fourth year in the league and you go to the Stanley Cup finals. But it's just amazing how you take off. You're just at another level. Instead of just jumping those little increments, you feel like you add three more years to your experience.
"You get to play in those high-pressure situations and it just elevates your play. Obviously it puts expectations on you ... you're considered an elite player, and you've got to respond to the expectations. Hopefully this is a shot in the arm for him, but it's definitely going to help his development."
Johnson's interest in the Olympics is that like many of the young Olympians that occupy Team USA's roster this season. They grew up following the greats of recent past. And for Johnson, that includes current Blues teammate Keith Tkachuk.
"Probably just that great generation and that great era of (Brian) Leetch, (Mike) Richter, Tkachuk, (Bill) Guerin and then (Doug) Weight and all those Americans who started the whole wave of a lot of kids starting to play hockey and following them," Johnson said. "I remember the years where I remember watching all those guys play. They had such a great team for so many years that they were still talking about making the team this year. Following those guys and watching their careers is what probably stuck out most for me."
And how could one not mention the Miracle on Ice squad of 1980, one that shocked the world when the USA pulled the greatest upset of all-time in defeating the mighty Soviet Union and eventually win the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.?
"I know when they won the 1980 gold medal, I don't think to this day they'd still think it would be such a big deal," Johnson said. "It's the No. 1 sporting moment in the history of sports. It's the 30th anniversary and if we could do something like that, your name would go up in history of American hockey and Olympic hockey. You'd make your country proud and you'd make everyone proud who was affiliated with you. It would be a really monumental occasion and something people will remember forever."
Johnson said there are many role models of past USA hockey teams, but he considers himself one of the underdogs, when he used to play street hockey and pretend to be one of the former greats.
"I had a lot of favorite players. Most of them were forwards and goalies for some reason, but I really just kind of gravitated towards kind of the underdogs a little bit and guys that didn't get as much appreciation," Johnson said. "I kind of think of a guy like Derian Hatcher, who's a shutdown guy (and) a good defenseman. I kind of looked (up) to guys like that who played the unheralded role. Whenever I'd play street hockey, I'd always play goalie or forward and be Mike Richter or be Tkachuk or be Weight. Whenever I was a kid, I'd have fun with it like that."
Just like he had fun with all those tennis balls, which ultimately led to Vancouver.
"There's nothing higher than the Olympics," Johnson said. "There's no stage higher than the Olympics on the international setting. It can't get any better than this."