Dusseldorf, Germany is a long way from the NHL, figuratively and literally.
Yet, after playing 10 seasons in the NHL, the majority of which spent with the Los Angeles Kings, Dusseldorf is exactly where Craig Johnson found himself in 2005. He went to Germany a year previously to play for the Hamburg Freezers during the NHL work stoppage. He expected it to be a one-off adventure, but an abdominal injury and complications from the surgery to correct it left Johnson out of hockey for close to a year and without a NHL contract offer.
By the time he was healthy, NHL teams had settled their rosters, so Johnson stayed in Dusseldorf for a two-year run with the DEG MetroStars of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany's top professional circuit.
After 30 goals and 51 points in 75 games, Johnson was again at a crossroads and opted to return to Southern California, where he had set up roots after playing parts of eight seasons with the Kings and a portion of the 2003-04 season with the Anaheim Ducks. While considering his next move, Johnson took some time to coach his son, Eric, who was playing with the Anaheim Junior Ducks, a youth program established in 1994, not long after the NHL came to Orange County.
There was no way for Johnson to know it at the time, but the decision paved the road for a high school hockey program in California to make history a few years later.
As the varsity hockey coach at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, Johnson has spearheaded a program that, like the interscholastic league in which it competes, has seen an unlikely and meteoric rise, one which has gained praise across the hockey world.
A Program Is Born
It all started with those skates with his son and the Junior Ducks.
"My son is a 2001-birth year. He was in Mites and he was very young at the time. As I was coaching his team, I was running a lot of drills that I had picked up over the years," Johnson said. "I kind of started to enjoy it and like it. That year, when I was coaching his team, Pierre Page was over at Red Bull Salzburg and offered me a contract to come over there and finish the year there."
That was during the 2008-09 season and Johnson decided to give pro hockey another try, signing with EC Red Bull Salzburg, the defending champion of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, which is Austria's top pro league. Johnson played 23 regular-season games that season and 15 in the playoffs, but he used his time wisely by undergoing an intense coaching tutorial.
He threw himself headfirst into coaching, learning plenty from the team and Page, who coached eight NHL seasons with the Minnesota North Stars, Quebec Nordiques, Calgary Flames and what was then known as the Mighty Ducks.
By the time Johnson returned to Southern California that summer, hockey at the local level had undergone some interesting changes.
During the summer of 2008, the Ducks launched the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, a program designed to introduce varsity hockey to a region that already had a rich history in other interscholastic sports, most notably football, baseball and basketball.
While Johnson was in Austria, the charter member of the league, JSerra Catholic High School, waded through the unique experience of being its only team. After spending much of the inaugural season playing against local club teams, JSerra was about to get some company when the ADHSHL expanded to two teams with the addition of Santa Margarita in 2009.
As it turned out, the man who spearheaded the founding of the Santa Margarita program, Mitch O'Brien, was a colleague of Johnson's with the Junior Ducks. When it came time to find a coach, there was no doubting Johnson's credentials.
"It was a sell to tell kids to come play here and not play club [hockey]. A huge component of that was Craig Johnson," said O'Brien, who is the director of hockey and junior varsity coach at the school. "What they get out of it is they get Craig. The mantra we came up with is, 'We're building student athletes.'"
Though not responsible for hiring Johnson (the school made that decision), O'Brien was the man bringing varsity hockey to Santa Margarita, where his son, Connor, enrolled after playing goalie with the Junior Ducks program.
An affable hockey junkie, O'Brien jokes often about cutting a boy named Nicolas Kerdiles from a local bantam team. In 2012, the Ducks chose Kerdiles in the second round of the NHL Draft. He is starring for the University of Wisconsin men's program.
O'Brien did have some bona fides on his resume. He coached the Junior Ducks Pee Wee team to victory in 2007 at the Quebec International World Pee Wee Hockey Tournament, an annual gathering in Quebec City. The championship came the same year the Ducks won the Stanley Cup.
Prior to that, O'Brien received his "Coaching Master's" while with the Junior Ducks. During the lockout in 2004-05, Ducks coach Mike Babcock, now with the Detroit Red Wings, was a fixture at the Anaheim Ice complex where his son, Mike Jr., played for the Junior Ducks. With not much else to do at the time, Babcock took O'Brien under his wing.
"Every practice that season, I came to Anaheim Ice and he had his office open and I would go in his office," O'Brien said. "He taught me how to coach the game. I got a master's degree in coaching in one season from one of the best."
Working as an assistant to Johnson with the newly established varsity team at Santa Margarita, O'Brien was counting on his son to be one of the players primed to play for the school. But when it came time to assemble a real team, there were some serious challenges. It wasn't long before O'Brien and Johnson realized there weren't enough hockey players enrolled.
Because there were two teams in the ADHSHL to that point, they were allowed to dress six players who did not attend either school. As difficult as it was to convince young players to forego their place on an organized club team so they could play for Santa Margarita, the coaching staff for the Eagles was tasked with finding players considering transferring and getting them to enroll at Santa Margarita.
Though it was a hard sell, the pitch made perfect sense to Johnson, who starred at Hill-Murray High School in Minnesota and reveres the traditions of the high school game in his home state.
"I grew up in Minnesota, where high school hockey rules," said Johnson, who was a standout with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers before being drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 1990. "When I was younger, I didn't even think about college. I just wanted to be in that high school hockey tournament. [Former University of Minnesota and NHL player] Neal Broten was definitely an idol growing up. I didn't watch him as a Gopher when I was younger, I watched him as a Roseau [High School] Ram. That brought me into the game."
When it came time to fill the Santa Margarita team with club-level talent, Johnson and O'Brien immediately pounced on a pair of brothers, Max and Michael Kilkuts, living an hour from the Rancho Santa Margarita campus who had played club hockey for Johnson.
Fortunately, Terri Kilkuts, the boys' mother, was looking for a new place for her sons to play. Quickly, Max and Michael became the foundation of the fledgling program.
"We were the product of a public school system that had changed. We were kind of looking around for a private institution at that point. They did play hockey. I guess someone had told me about Santa Margarita and everything kind of fell into place," Terri Kilkuts said. "With four boys, I never cared if I raised athletes. I wanted to raise fine young men. And Craig provided that both on and off the ice."
Having played with Johnson in the Junior Ducks program, the Kilkuts boys barely hesitated before committing to their new school.
"[Johnson] took the job at SM and it was a no-brainer for us to go there. He's the best coach in youth hockey in California, hands down. It was an opportunity we couldn't pass up," Max Kilkuts said. "He knows everything about the game. His hockey knowledge is above anybody else's I know."
The Road to a National Title
With 18 players on the roster, including six who didn't attend the school, the Santa Margarita Eagles had a real team. And they were good.
With one other team in the league, they played most of their games against local club teams. That 2009-10 season expanded the sporting legacy of a school that, aside from being known for its high academic standards, had seen star athletes including Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer and NBA star Klay Thompson navigate its halls.
Best of all, the student body at Santa Margarita, which for years had never considered the possibility of having a varsity hockey team, enthusiastically embraced the squad. Though games weren't played close to campus, students and teachers flocked to them and showed their school pride. Most of the Eagles' games are played at Anaheim Ice complex, located 30 miles from campus.
It wasn't long before Santa Margarita, and the league it inhabited, started expanding at a rate no one could have foreseen.
"What we're building here [are] student athletes," O'Brien said. "We're giving them a leg up in both athletics and a high school that gets them prepared to go to a major university. Next thing I know I have a kid from Finland's dad emailing."
The email was from Juka Kunnas, a Finn who years earlier attended school and played football (the American version) in the United States. Kunnas' friend, as it turned out, was an acquaintance of Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne, a fellow Finn. When the subject of Kunnas' son, Joona, attending a school in Southern California came up, Selanne mentioned Santa Margarita.
"The father had experienced high school and college over in the States and wanted to give the same experience to his kid," Johnson said. "The dad said, 'He's a defensive defenseman.' All of a sudden he came over and I was like, 'If he's a defensive defenseman, he's our best one.' He was so skilled."
Kunnas starred for a year with the Eagles and now plays at the University of Connecticut, simultaneously becoming the first foreign player and first Division I success story in the program's brief history. But Kunnas' success wasn't unusual. In just a few years, Santa Margarita has become one of the top programs in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, which itself saw meteoric growth.
By 2010-11, two years after the League started with a single team, it expanded to five teams. Two years after that, it had 14 teams, including nine varsity programs. In a true showing of how quickly the league had grown, the ADHSHL opened the 2013-14 season with 28 teams, including two in San Diego County. Fifteen of those are varsity programs.
"We're pretty surprised, especially this last year. We realistically thought we would add five or six teams. Our goal was to get to 20," said Art Trottier, who as president of the Junior Ducks program and founder of the ADHSHL, has witnessed the first Golden Age of California high school hockey. "In the last few years, we're finding kids are opting to play high school more and more, which is very interesting. I think it's trending that way. The first couple of years, the majority of kids played both, just to see if this was going to fly or not. As the league has grown and gained a lot more respect, kids are opting to leave club hockey and just play high school."
Programs like Santa Margarita's were beneficiaries of this shift in California youth hockey. After starting with a dozen SM students on its roster, the school has more than 40 active hockey players, including Johnson's son, Eric. That's enough to populate a varsity and a junior varsity team.
The Eagles program may have expanded quickly, venturing as far as Colorado to compete in tournaments against top teams from the United States and Canada, but playing opponents from traditional hockey hotbeds, it is apparent, at times, California hasn't yet earned the respect of its hockey-playing peers.
"Every tournament we usually go to, especially before with my young kids or the high school, I think kids are kind of excited to play California right away," Johnson said. "You hear a lot of times, 'Well, at least we have California right away, it will be a good warm-up.'"
In recent years, that sentiment has started to change.
As the high school league expanded, Santa Margarita established itself as a state power. In 2011-12, with many of the initial players entering their junior and senior seasons, the Eagles seemed poised to do the unthinkable: make a real run at the USA Hockey High School Boys Varsity National Championship.
But with hopes as high as they had ever been, Santa Margarita lost in the quarterfinal of the 2012 national championship to Iowa's Waterloo Warriors, who would advance to the final before losing to Colorado's Regis Jesuit High School.
With a number of the Eagles' top players, including goaltender Connor O'Brien and defenseman Mike Kilkuts, graduating, the impression was that Santa Margarita may have missed its best opportunity to show the hockey world that Californians were known for more than surfing. Disappointed by the result, Johnson couldn't help but feel like an important chapter in the history of this young program was ending.
"It was one of my favorite teams because of the people that made it up and kids that were willing to sacrifice club experience for something that was brand new," Johnson said. "Without them we wouldn't have high school hockey like it is now. Without those kids, we're probably not even talking right now."
The following season, Santa Margarita started strong despite the graduation of those prominent players. Its freshman class seemed to defy expectations, and it was bolstered by a new pair of brothers who became an important part of the team: Eemil and Eetu Selanne, the sons of Teemu. Adding to the recent, if unusual, tradition of Finns playing at Santa Margarita, the Selanne brothers were joined by their cousin, Tatu Hiltunen, the son of Teemu's sister-in-law.
All of a sudden, the Santa Margarita program featured some star power.
"Those [Selanne] kids have to be tough. When you go to these high school tournaments and you've got Selanne on your jersey, they're watching you. They're both very skilled players, but that's just a down-to-earth family," O'Brien said. "They're very family-oriented and they're just good people. Leevi, they're youngest one, is coming in next year."
With Eemil playing as a sophomore and Eetu as a freshman last season, it was quickly apparent the pair were more than just the sons of a hockey legend. They established themselves as key components on a deep team expected to miss a step after losing a strong senior class.
"They're both quality players. Eetu plays center for us and he's very good defensively. He makes good reads with the puck, he's good offensively," Johnson said. "Eemil has a lot of speed on the wing. When he uses his speed, he's very hard to beat. He looks like the young Finnish Flash."
By Presidents' Day weekend, the Eagles appeared to be finding their stride. In a tournament in Colorado, they more than held their own against a strong team from Burnaby, British Columbia in the final and came back to California looking like a potential favorite at the national championship. After winning their state tournament, the Eagles went undefeated in pool play at the 2013 national championship in Coral Springs, Fla., before beating Centennial (Tenn.) in the quarterfinal and earning their revenge against Waterloo in the semis.
With that, Santa Margarita advanced to the final against the defending national champion, Regis Jesuit.
SM took an early 3-1 lead and appeared on its way to earning a national championship in its fourth season. But the defending champ wasn't going away quietly.
"We went up two goals after the first and kind of kept going," said Max Kilkuts, who was closing his varsity career with that game. "Their goalie played really well. They got a couple of good bounces and we just had to battle it from there."
Regis Jesuit tied the game late and earned a power play with 2:58 remaining in regulation. The Eagles killed the penalty, setting the stage for overtime. At 2:01 into the extra period, Kilkuts scored off a feed from Hiltunen, and California won its first varsity national championship.
"Tatu Hiltunen was on the backcheck. He pushed the issue on offense and took it to the net. He was battling at the side of the net and the puck popped out to me and I was lucky to put it in," said Kilkuts, who plays club hockey at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is majoring in engineering. "It's still the best moment I've had in hockey and one that I won't forget soon."
The incredible finish was a crowning achievement for Johnson and Santa Margarita, which had won numerous state titles in football but now could boast a national championship hockey team. For the entire school it was a special moment, especially for those on the staff who had grown up watching hockey.
"Just talking about it, I get goosebumps," said Sammer Darwazeh, the school's director of activities and the person responsible for coordinating with Johnson on administrative issues including budgets and schedules. "It's a blessing. I grew up a hockey fan. I played roller hockey. I grew up following hockey. The Ducks were my team through my childhood and to this day. It's extra special to me personally. I grew up with it and now coming to work and being able to help these kids, they're doing some great things right now. It's something I never dreamed of. It blows my mind."
As much as anything, Santa Margarita's national title signified the incredible rise of hockey talent in California. It was accelerated by grass-roots programs established by its NHL franchises which helped groom some of the top young players in the game.
For the championship coach, this improbable journey began with a desire to be closer to his son. Now, that son plays on Santa Margarita's JV team as a freshman and could someday join his dad with the varsity squad and add a chapter to California hockey history.
By his own admission, Craig Johnson never saw it coming.
"The high school league was brand new. Truthfully, I didn't know it would grow like it did, so fast," Johnson said. "I knew there would be interest but to go from two teams to 28 is pretty incredible. As far as where we got last year, that was another thing that was a little bit of a surprise. This year, everything just kind of came together. The kids peaked at the right time, they started to play great hockey. We had a great little run there."
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