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Prospect Johns talks hard hits and outdoor hockey

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
Stephen Johns, a 2010 second-round draft pick known for his toughness and physical game, has emerged as a blueline leader in his third year with the Fighting Irish. (Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Notre Dame defenseman Stephen Johns was one of three Blackhawks prospects who represented Team USA at the 2012 World Juniors tournament, along with Brandon Saad, who is putting together a strong rookie campaign with Chicago, and fellow blueliner Adam Clendening, an AHL All-Star with the Rockford IceHogs this season. Johns, a 2010 second-round draft selection, may not have the same name recognition as the other two, but his opponents on the ice certainly know who he is. With his 6-foot-4-inch frame and penchant for hard hits, Johns is one of the toughest defenders to play against in the CCHA.

The Fighting Irish took part in the Hockey City Classic held at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sunday, Feb. 17, defeating Miami of Ohio 2-1 in a tense conference matchup that held big implications for the NCAA playoff picture. Johns, a junior, spoke with after Saturday’s team practice and shared his thoughts on outdoor hockey, his defining traits as a player and his college career so far.

Playing an outdoor game here in a big stadium must be a real treat for you guys. Did you play any pond hockey growing up in Pennsylvania?

It’s awesome, taking hockey back to its roots. Back home in Pittsburgh, we’d always look forward to the winters because we’d always have the opportunity to play pond hockey. Getting back to that a little bit this weekend is going to be awesome.

What was it like to practice outside today?

It was definitely surreal. For the past four, five years, you’re watching the Winter Classic and thinking, “Oh man, I wish I could do that one day.” So finally getting out there today and looking around, seeing all the seats that will hopefully be filled’s incredible.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your time at Notre Dame so far?

Playing my freshman year in the old Joyce building was awesome, but getting to move over into the palace that we have now at the Compton, that’s probably my best memory. In both buildings, I’ve made some great memories.

You were named top defenseman last year by your teammates. What was it like to receive that honor?

It was huge. To get recognition from my teammates for an award like that is always a confidence booster and makes me want to support my teammates even more. After winning that award my sophomore year, I’ve looked to advance my play in my junior year and to lead my teammates in the right direction. I feel like I’ve done that a little bit this year, and I’m maturing more and more as a player and a person.

Each year we do a Scouts Picks feature for Blackhawks Magazine where we poll all the scouts for the top prospects in various categories. You’ve been consistently rated high as a shutdown defenseman and in the playing physical categories. Is that an accurate reflection of your game?

Ever since I started playing, I’ve loved the physical edge to the game. I’m a bigger guy, so I feel like I have to take advantage of that. It’s fun to shut down the other team’s top line, throw the body around and have fun with it.

What areas of your game do you still want to work on in order to keep improving and eventually make the leap to professional hockey?

My play without the puck, definitely. Making little smart plays, being a better leader and being more aware of everything on and off the ice.

Who was your hockey idol? Do you model your game after anyone in particular?

As of late, I like to model my game after Brooks Orpik and Brent Seabrook. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I always idolized Mario Lemieux. I played a few years as forward, but one year I moved back to D and realized that’s where I needed to be.

It’s Hockey Weekend Across America, and you came up through the US Development Program and represented your country at World Juniors last year. Do you think your nationality has shaped your identity as a player?

I couldn’t be more proud of being American. When I did get the opportunity to wear [the USA logo] on my chest, it was a great honor. All the hard work I put in finally paid off in that awesome opportunity, and one day I hope to be able to put on that sweater again.

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