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Johnson's homecoming a thrill for whole family

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

The ritual is played out everywhere across this land, from tip to tip. Be it winter or summer. A particular slice of Canadiana indigenous to our national psyche.

The cul-de-sac of Deer Ridge Place, SE back in the early-to-mid-90s was certainly no different.

“We’d use one of those round, orange, road-hockey balls,’’ Curtis Johnson is reminiscing.

“Those things, if you remember, were hard. They stung if they hit you.

“Chad was the sucker in net. It just wasn’t in my blood to stand in front of slapshots. Thanks, but no thanks.

“So in the winter time, Chad really had to man up. But he fell in love with it.

“Guess he made the right call.

“Look where he is now.”

Exactly where all those kids on the cul-de-sac way back then, way back when, pretended they’d one day be: Readying to open training camp with the Calgary Flames.

On July 1st, after agreeing to one-year, $1.7 million UFA deal, at a media conference unveiling he and Troy Brouwer, Chad Johnson slipped on the Flaming C designer duds for the first time.

“When he threw that jersey on at the press conference,’’ admits Curtis, “I have to tell you, I kinda got the shivers.

“I broke out in goosebumps.

“Throughout Chad’s career, there have some special moments. The first time he played up in Alaska, first NHL game, but this … this is extra special.

“This is his hometown, where he grew up. This is the team he - we - grew up cheering for.

“He’d worn that jersey often enough on the street as a kid. So it was slightly surreal for our family to see him throw it on for real.”

Through a seven-year pro career that has yielded pretty decent NHL statistics - a collective 50-30-11 record, 2.39 GAA and .917 save percentage - Chad Johnson has played five games for the NY Rangers, four for the Phoenix Coyotes, 27 as a Boston Bruin and 45 last winter for the Buffalo Sabres.

He has, in actually, been looking for a professional home all along.

Now, at 30, he’s hoping he’s found one. At home.

“It’s unbelievable to have your son here, playing in the NHL,’’ says Chad’s dad, Terry, who moved the family from Saskatoon to Calgary for a business opportunity when the twins were a year old. “Hard to describe. A thrill.

“I mean, as a parent you always dream of something like this happening. But what are the odds?”

Out on the cul-de-sac in Deer Ridge those many moons ago, Curtis Johnson was always Joe Nieuwendyk, tipping pucks, while brother Chad was all about stopping them, a la … Ed Belfour?!

“I was a Flames fan, but I don’t know what it was about Eddie the Eagle,’’ says Chad. “His intensity, maybe. His desire. An ‘I’ll-show-you’ attitude. You could see it in the way he played.

“He also seemed to be bit of an underdog. A great goalie in his own right, there was always Marty Brodeur and Patrick Roy ahead of him in people’s eyes. So he was sort of fighting for recognition, too. I was just drawn to that. We all find one guy to idolize and he was that guy for me growing up.”

One day, when Belfour happened to be here in Calgary on a promotion, appearing along with Flames’ goalie Trevor Kidd at a Sport Smart location on McLeod Trail down south, the Johnson boys dutifully trooped down toting a stack of cards and memorabilia to be signed.

Digging through the basement recently, dad unearthed a cameo-keepsake from a bygone here.

“After Chad bought the house here, we were sorting through a lot of old stuff in our basement,’’ recalls Terry, “sort of like, ‘Chad, you have this,’ and there was this Eddie Belfour poster he’d signed for Chad. It says something like: ‘To Chad. Hope to see you in the NHL one day.’

“Can you imagine?

“It’s come full circle.”

Memories of his growing-up Flames’ infatuation haven’t dimmed over the years. There was an occasional trip down to the Saddledome for a game (“Tickets,’’ explains Johnson, “were expensive”). But he does recall the brothers’ Buffaloes bantam AAA team practicing there, watching that edition of team skate, studying the goalies (“The thing that stuck with me,’’ he laughs, “is how everything they wore matched. I was like ,‘Wow! These guys are the best there is.'”), and once having his and Curtis’s photo taken outside the dressing room with superstar Jarome Iginla.

“Then I end up playing with Jarome in Boston,’’ Johnson muses. “I remember sitting in the room there, thinking, ‘All the things he’s done as a player, what he meant to the Flames for so many years and now I’m a teammate of his. That’s so cool.’ Being part of his comeback to Calgary, the welcome, was pretty amazing, too. Awesome to play with him and see up close what’s made him so great for so long.”

For twin brother Curtis, living a five-hour drive away in Lloydminister, SK where he owns a gym, the trek in for Calgary home dates will be long, but certainly do-able on occasion.

For mom and dad, this is Christmas x 10 come early. After all these years, they own season tickets.

That’s what having an ‘in’ will do for you.

“Back then, there was a long line for season tickets,’’ says Terry, who owns an air conditioning/furnace business in town. “You’d put your name in but …

“It’s going to be great to watch Chad and support him.”

Over his seven years pro, Chad Johnson has played exactly one NHL game at the rink he considered a sort of shrine. That was a 32-stop, 4-3 loss with the visiting Sabres on Dec. 10th of last season.

Understandably, given the long-time attachment, he’s already anticipating his first turn in the ‘Dome outfitted in a Flaming C.

“My focus is always going to be there when the puck drops,’’ Johnson says. “But I’m there will be that little extra fire, extra passion, for me knowing I’m wearing a Flames’ jersey.

“I’ll try and take everything all in before the game. The anthem, everyone wearing red, the energy in the building …

“When I’m playing, my mindset has always been the same, will always be the same, no matter what jersey I put on.

“The game is the game.

“But you’ve also got to embrace moments and use them.”

Time has passed. The Johnson family compound has moved away from Deer Ridge Place.

Over the years, every now again, Chad Johnson has driven over to the southeast, the old cul-de-sac, where those all-day street hockey sessions with the hard orange ball took place and the of a nurturing of a career began to take shape.

Now 30, with a family of his own, Chad Johnson can’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia at how everything has worked out.

“Hockey is a career, a business, and you have to look after yourself,’’ he admits, “but the other side of it really hits home when a young kid asks you for an autograph, maybe, or when you’re driving own the street and there are a bunch of kids out there playing street hockey.

“Then you start to reminisce.

“It takes me back to when I was that age. That was me, all those years ago. You play and pretend, reaching for these faraway goals that everyone tells you are impossible.

“But they’re not. At least, they don’t have to be. You put your head down, you work, you play and practice as hard as you can and see where it takes you.”

Where it’s taken him, at long last, is here. Is Calgary. Is home.

“I’d always kind of wondered, in the back of my mind, if it might be possible, someday,'' he admits.

“And it has.

“That’s when you kind of step back and realize how lucky you really are.”

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