It was August 2015. I was sitting at dinner overlooking Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, NY with the management staff of USA Hockey's National Junior Evaluation Camp. For a 23-year-old girl who grew up playing and watching hockey and continually convinced her family to watch 'Miracle' on movie nights, it was a dream come true to work alongside USA Hockey greats, learning from some of the best of the best.
I was minding my own business while the coaching and management staff discussed player evaluations and potential roster cuts. I felt a bit out of place as an entry-level reporter and the youngest member of the group amongst some of hockey's greatest ambassadors. Then Jim Johannson paused the conversation and said "Rachel, let's hear your thoughts. Your opinion is just as important as anyone else at this table."
I remember my heart stopping and feeling both amazed and terrified at the same time. JJ sat and listened intently to every word I had to say, taking notes and asking follow-up questions. I remember immediately thinking "wow what a gesture." That one small moment was incredibly encapsulating of his persona and how he treated everyone with the utmost respect, whether you were an NHL GM or the newest intern at USA Hockey's National Office. Nobody was too small. Everyone was worth his time.
I had the privilege of getting to know JJ while working at USA Hockey's National office as their broadcast and social media reporter prior to joining the Islanders. And it was that same World Junior Evaluation Camp in 2015 where JJ introduced me to another incredible person in the hockey world, Doug Weight.
Doug was assisting as a guest coach at World Junior Evaluation Camp that summer and you could see the excitement between him and JJ when they reunited in Lake Placid, sharing memories from past Olympics and reminiscing on years of bonding at various USA Hockey events.
"He was just a real good man," said Weight. "He's sincere and never took a lot of the credit, but he worked hard to get USA where it is. This is a really big loss to USA Hockey."
Doug had known Jim for upwards of 25 years, becoming more than just colleagues, but lifelong friends. Weight had played in three Olympics in which JJ had a big hand in working with the team.
"We saw him every day. We had a crazy crew, that core USA team," said Weight. "We were all always together. You kind of grow with the equipment guys and JJ was always there albeit in different rising roles as we went. It didn't change how we treated him. We were always busting his chops and had a really good time with him."
Hearing that Weight and his teammates always enjoyed their time with JJ was no surprise to me. JJ was someone who could have seemed intimidating from afar, but in reality, was just the opposite. He was an incredibly caring and genuine person. In my years of knowing JJ, I had never once seen him raise his voice or let any situation fluster him. He was without a doubt always the person cracking jokes and would never hesitate to throw in a good chirp to lighten the mood.
"It's just crazy when you think about it that one day you wake up and you get the news and things change for his family and he's no longer with us," Weight said. "He's one of those guys where you pick the phone up and call him and 30 seconds later your phone rings and he's asking what you need and he's on it."
Not only did he work hard to get USA hockey where it is, but he's also made an impact on the lives of many in the hockey world from players to coaches and staff members. The news of Johannson's passing hit hard for Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, who got to know JJ while playing for Team USA at Men's World Championships.
"I was shocked," said Nelson. "Anders and I were sitting down together in the morning and both read it at the same. Obviously knowing him from World Championships I got to interact with him a lot. He was such an easy guy to be around, helped out a lot of young guys starting off in the program and all the teams all the way up. My family knew him pretty well too so it's tough and it's crazy."
While in disbelief over the news of his passing, both Anders and Brock had nothing but positive memories and gratitude for the opportunities that Johannson provided them with USA Hockey.
"JJ was the one who gave me the opportunity to play for the U.S. He invited me to World Championships on two occasions and I was able to get to know him a little bit playing for those two teams. He was such a great guy," said Lee. "It's such an honor to be able to play for the U.S. and for him to look out for me and decide that he wanted me on his teams it was really special. Those are things that I'll never take for granted and are memories I'll always have and he was the one who opened that door for me."
When I was thinking back trying to reflect on my memories of JJ, I realized that it was impossible for me to pinpoint one or two particular occasions that stood out because of the type of person JJ was. Everything he did was for the greater good of his team, his players, his staff or USA Hockey as a whole. The great moments were so frequent when JJ was around that there were too many to count.
Other people's needs were always at the forefront for him.
"I remember when we were trying to get into Germany last spring and my passport was packed in my bag underneath the plane," said Lee. "He helped me figure it all out and stayed with me the entire time and it just shows how much he cares and always looked out for his guys, his players and the hockey community. It's such a huge loss."
JJ's dedication to the sport and to USA Hockey in particular was more than just impressive, it was infectious and his passion and enthusiasm filtered down to everyone he worked with.
At the beginning of the day he was always the first person up and in the team room. He wouldn't be eating breakfast, but rather making sure everyone else had their breakfast and was set with everything they needed before practice. At the end of the day he was always the last to leave the rink.
The hard work he put into his role with USA Hockey was evident even down to the smallest details. Every morning on the road for the World Junior Championship outside of each player and staff member's door would be a daily news feed put together by JJ with updates on the practice schedule, the local weather so you could dress accordingly for practice, a motivational quote, and even some fun facts about players on the team or lists of 'must see' attractions in the local area.
He ran a tight ship but was always very jovial about his work. He was one of the few people I've worked with that genuinely enjoyed everything he did. JJ was a constant reminder that we're all lucky to be here doing something we love, playing a game we love and as a result should always go through our day with a smile on our faces.
Smiles from JJ became a very frequent occurrence when he found out he and his wife Abby were expecting their first child, a little girl. I've never seen him more excited than right after Ellie was born. He was beyond amazed that he had a little girl of his own and as much as hockey was his focus, you could tell his greatest joy quickly became being a dad. He wanted to talk about her constantly, pulling up photos and beaming with pride.
I was fortunate to see JJ in Columbus this past December while the U.S. World Junior Team was in town for training camp the same night the Islanders played the Blue Jackets. It had been close to two years since I had last seen JJ and not more than a minute went by before he was pulling up videos of Ellie and showing me how much she had grown since I'd last seen her.
"The hardest thing is he's just been so excited the last couple of times I've seen him," said Weight. "He started a family late and has a little 2-yr old daughter. I've really learned to respect him. He's a very humble driven guy, worked really hard, really proud of his obvious hand in USA hockey from the junior ranks out he was willing to take on every team that they put on the ice."
We lost an incredible person and one of the greatest ambassadors of the game we love - a man who always gave more to the game than he ever expected back in return. He touched a lot of lives, including mine. They don't come any better than Jim Johannson and the hockey world will not be the same without him.