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Home for the holidays: Ryan Johansen

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Ryan Johansen was 19 years old and 29 games into a brand new chapter of his life when he realized just how painful it was to be away from home during the holidays.

He was in his rookie season with the Blue Jackets in 2011-12, a season that did not start well and ultimately resulted in a coaching change in late January. A wide-eyed teenager who started the year in “happy to be here” mode, Johansen rode an emotional roller coaster on the ice during a tumultuous year for the team.

Off the ice, he was pretty down in the dumps when he wasn’t able to make it home for Christmas.

The lowlight was Christmas Day, when the only “quality time” spent with his parents was a Skype session that didn’t serve its desired purpose. In fact, it was essentially the opposite.

“’Miserable’ would probably be the best word to describe how I felt,” Johansen said. “That was tough. It was hard to see them at home, celebrating with the family and being with each other. That was my first Christmas not being at home and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I ended up going to see a movie on Christmas morning and saw Mission Impossible...I didn’t like that.

“From that point forward, I promised myself that, no matter how long our Christmas break is, I’m going to find a way to get home and see my family.”

Now 22 years old and in his fourth NHL season, Johansen has not missed a Christmas at his Port Moody, B.C. home since. Aiding him has been the league’s annual Christmas break, and this season, the Blue Jackets had a home game on Dec. 22 and are scheduled off until a Dec. 27 home game against the Boston Bruins.

On Tuesday morning, Johansen headed to Port Columbus for the cross-continental flight to Vancouver where he met his parents, Randall and Rosalind, on the other side.

They were looking forward to seeing their oldest child for the first time in a few months, but they were also busy planning the first Christmas party at their son’s new offseason home – one that his mother helped decorate and get in order while Ryan trained and prepared for the 2014-15 season.

And this wasn’t any old Christmas party. The Johansens invited 50 family members and close friends to welcome Ryan home with a holiday bash.

“I’ve really been looking forward to it and I know my parents were super excited,” Johansen said of the party. “It’ll be close family, our friends, and we’ll have some fun with that. A bunch of my parents’ friends were invited, too, so it’s a pretty big group. It’s a great time to catch up, see everybody and see how they’re doing and celebrate the holidays.

“We don’t have any full-blown Christmas traditions, really. It’s more about us spending as much time together as we can and making the most of that time. With me playing so far away from home and now my little brother has moved away (Lucas is a defenseman for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets), too, it’s really important for us to get together around the holidays…it’s really special and I’m glad we can do it.”

Going home for the holidays not only means some much-needed time with family and friends, but for Johansen, it also means re-living some of his fondest memories and going back to simpler times, writing Christmas lists and waking up to open presents with his younger brother.

As the older brother, Ryan played along with mom and dad, making sure they were ready for Santa Claus, and that Lucas was on the big fella’s “nice” list. They’ve both grown up, figuratively and literally, but walking through his parents’ front door always takes him back.

“There are so many memories,” Johansen said. “Santa was always good to us as kids. He spoiled me pretty good. When I was younger, I was really excited when I got one of the things that was at the top of my list…obviously, as you get older, your perspective on Christmas and the holidays is a little different, but as a kid, that’s what everyone remembers.”

As a young kid who grew up playing defense until age 14, one gift Johansen won't soon forget is a jersey of his favorite hockey player: Bobby Orr.

“That memory stands out, absolutely,” Johansen said. “My dad would always talk about him and how great a player he was and how he played the game, so I became a huge Bobby Orr fan and I still am. I fell in love with my dad’s stories about him, and that’s part of the reason why I started out as a defenseman.”

Johansen’s dad would tell countless stories of Orr, one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game. He joked that, a few years after receiving the Orr jersey for Christmas, they decided that playing forward was probably the best option for him.

Those memories and countless others are a small part of why Johansen can’t wait to get home for Christmas every year, even if Vancouver isn’t prone to snowfall like Edmonton, Alberta (Kevin Connauton’s hometown) or Lloydminster, Saskatchewan (where Scott Hartnell grew up).

It’s the down time, the unplugging, the re-charging, the laughs, and not to be forgotten: his one-year-old Siberian husky puppy named Lily.

“It’s a special time of year for me, my brother and my parents,” he said. “They spoiled me, and now, I get to spoil them. I can’t wait to see my dog. She’s my little princess and she’s growing so fast.

“Having four days off this year is awesome. Traveling to Vancouver and back is a long trip, so that gives me an extra day out there and it makes a huge difference. I’m pretty thankful for that.”

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