Jamie Johnson feels fortunate to earn a living by playing a game that he loves.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Griffins forward Jamie Johnson says he has always been a streaky scorer, but he’s doing his best to talk himself out of a slump.
He talks of his excitement about coming to Grand Rapids with best pal Chris Minard after both signed with the Red Wings this past summer, how it’s the fulfillment of a long-held dream that sought to rejoin best friends who hadn’t played together since they first skated for the Oshawa Generals in the OHL 10 years ago.
As he speaks, he realizes this isn’t quite the way they had pictured the dream.
A year ago, Johnson scored 27 goals in 80 games for the Rochester Americans. Minard tallied 22 goals in only 40 games for the Springfield Falcons. Sixteen games into the Griffins’ 2010-11 season, each had one goal.
“We’re both trying to get out of (the slump),” Johnson said. “We’re trying different things to find the scoring touch. We talk about it a lot, maybe we talk about it too much. We know it will come, but it’s frustrating.
“We came here together and now we’re struggling together, so it would be nice if we somehow got out of it together. We’ve definitely had a slow start (individually), but there’s not as much pressure when the team is winning.”
It’s not like Johnson hasn’t been in this situation before. Last season, he was scoreless in the first eight games, then recorded seven goals in the next eight games before going through another 10-game drought later in the year.
“I don’t have an answer for it – it’s just one of those things,” Johnson said. “Last year we were in Syracuse when the coach told me to just go out and finish some hits and try to get into the game that way. I finally scored and then the goals started coming.”
He tells himself to keep shooting. “I’ve always been more of a setup guy anyway, looking to pass first usually. It’s probably a knock on me that I don’t shoot enough, and when you’re going through these things, you’ve got to shoot more.
“My dad always says ‘Shoot for the inside of the post.’ I don’t know how they’ll start going in. Hopefully I’ll get a lucky one. Maybe I’ll have one go off me someway, somehow.”
The Griffins were winning games even without Johnson and Minard scoring, so their teammates will welcome the day when the two start finding their way onto the scoresheet. It’ll certainly be a big relief for the pair.
“We’ve been great buddies over the years – we were in each other’s wedding parties and I was his best man,” Johnson said. “Chris was traded to Oshawa midway during my first full season there and we just started hanging out.
“We lived a couple of hours away, but we went to each other’s house in the summertime and we became almost inseparable the whole next year. We were always on the bus together, always doing something. We had a great time together.”
Johnson and Minard had been looking to play together for a long time.
“We both became free agents this summer and we have the same agent, so we made it pretty clear that we wanted to go somewhere together. We asked around and Detroit was definitely the best fit for both of us.”
From his standpoint, Johnson couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
“For me, it was pretty exciting,” he said. “To be able to say I signed with the Red Wings was pretty cool. It’s an organization where you only think of the best. It’s such an honor to sign with them and then to go to their camp and you’re in awe playing on the same ice with (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg.”
Undrafted in junior hockey, Johnson had been in previous NHL camps. While playing in the ECHL, he had been invited to training camp by Minnesota and Dallas. He had spent time in the New York Islanders camp a few years ago.
Playing for the Red Wings almost seemed unimaginable.
“Both Chris and I started at the bottom, playing in the East Coast,” Johnson said. “We both had to work our way up the ladder, which is tough to do when you’re not drafted or signed to an NHL contract.
“Playing in the ECHL can be discouraging. You’re not making a lot of money – you’re basically playing for the love of the game. There were good times and bad times, but I stuck with it and I’ve been rewarded the last couple of years. Looking back, I wouldn’t change it. The experience taught me a lot.”
Johnson played for the Louisiana IceGators and Augusta Lynx. “I don’t know how much they know about hockey in the South, but they were pretty supportive,” he said. “It was a different experience, but I really enjoyed it.”
As an avid golfer, Johnson found the warmer weather to be a godsend. “You can golf year-round and the courses down there are in great shape,” he said. “Being able to watch the Masters and go to the par-3 tournament was awesome.”
He averaged better than a point per game in the ECHL, which earned him a promotion to the AHL. He bounced from Iowa to Bridgeport to Albany before his agent convinced him to spend the 2008-09 season in Finland.
“My agent thought it was in my best interests to go there for a year and it was a great experience,” said Johnson, who played on the same team as Griffins teammate Ilari Filppula. “I think it helped my game because the skill level there is so incredible. It made me a better player.”
He was accompanied by his fiancée Lisa – now his wife – and they spent a lot of time with Kyle Klubertanz, the other North American import. “He was always hanging out with us and when her sister was done with school, she came to visit. The two of them just hit it off and they’ve been together ever since. They now have a two-month-old baby and plan to get married next summer.”
Last season was spent in Rochester, the home of the primary affiliate of the Florida Panthers. “We thought Florida was a good choice because the team looked thin at center,” he said. “I played on a line with Mike York and Jeff Taffe, and we just clicked.”
Johnson was the team’s leading scorer. He waited for a call-up to the NHL, but it never happened. “I have no regrets about going there,” he said. “I’m sure they had their reasons for calling someone else.”
Still, he admits that he longs for the day that he can pull an NHL jersey over his head for a regular season game.
“Like anybody, I’d love to be able to play in the NHL, even if just for a game to say that I did it,” he said. “It’s still a goal because it would be an unbelievable accomplishment, but my primary goal now is winning. We have a pretty exciting team here and I’d love to help the Griffins win a championship.”
Johnson is perfectly content to keep playing and giving it everything he’s got. He works hard, but it’s not really work.
“We’re pretty spoiled to be able to play hockey for a living, so I don’t even see it as a job,” he said. “When you go through tough stretches and you start feeling sorry for yourself, you have to remind yourself that we’re so lucky to be doing this and that it’s just a game.”
And so he laces up the skates, night after night, hoping it’s the one that might signal the start of a scoring streak. If his stick remains as cold as the ice below his skates, he’ll be happy to have a puck bounce off his backside into the net.
He’ll gladly take a goal anytime, anyhow.
“It can be frustrating, but it’s part of hockey,” he said. “If it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.”