Editor's Note: Following the theme of the LA Kings 2010-11 Yearbook, each week we will feature a player telling his story on how he became passionate about this game we all love.
By Jack Johnson | Special to LAKings.com
I played my first hockey game on my fifth birthday after we had moved to Michigan from Indianapolis. My parents got me equipment and everything at Christmas and my dad signed me up for a house league team at the local city arena and I played my first game on my birthday.
At first, I remember kind of being fearless going out and onto the ice. My mom took me free skating a couple times before I even put on hockey gear. My mom always laughs about it and she said like all the kids would kind of hang out on the side of the boards and she said I just stepped out and skated across the other side of the rink. Skating was always, luckily, a natural thing for me. I have worked on it my whole life but I never started off hanging on the boards or pushing a chair or anything. I guess I was too young and dumb to realize that falling down hurts.
Initially I was a forward. I know I never wanted to play goalie as I never liked the idea of getting shot at as I wanted to score goals too much. But I played forward all the way up until Bantams. My first year of Peewee was when I started playing for a Triple A team. I was playing for the Little Caesars Hockey Club.
Hockey’s huge obviously in Metro-Detroit. We played great games against each other and we would always go up to tournaments in Toronto and play other travel teams. We knew we were in a good area for hockey when a lot of times we would be going up to Toronto and other big hockey hot beds, and it would be the two Detroit teams in the finals.
Travel hockey is when you don’t have one rink that you play at all the time. You have one rink that is considered home base, and you practice there and you play all your home games there. The team would schedule a game against another team in another city and your parents would have to drive you. Practices could be anywhere and the level of competition was much higher. It’s also a lot more expensive and a lot more time consuming.
I remember before school my mom would get me up and drive me 20 minutes to a local arena for skating lessons before school even started. She didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to take me skating. She could have easily said forget it, you’ll go at normal practice time. Growing up I loved college hockey right from the stats. That’s what I wanted to do and my parents kind of set out to try and help make me good enough to earn a scholarship to go to a big time university. So that was the goal obviously. My parents were just hoping I would be able to get myself an education based on my hockey abilities.
My dad went to Wisconsin so my dad took me to Badger games. My mom went to Michigan so I went to Michigan games. I always thought about college hockey. If I could only play college hockey that would be unbelievable and obviously I kind of fell in love with the University of Michigan just being a local Michigan kid. Every kid in the Detroit-area wanted to play hockey at the University of Michigan. I always wanted to wear the winged helmet and try to get myself a scholarship to play at Michigan.
Before that happened, I played for Shattuck St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota. I was there for three years, from eighth grade to 10th grade. They have a boarding option for you too but my parents and I agree now that I’m older, that sticking an 8th grader in the dorms two states away might not be the smartest idea. So my parents moved up to Minnesota. My dad had lived in Minnesota at one point when he was a kid, but they moved up there and rented a house pretty much right across the street from school to keep the family together because I have a brother who is 11 years younger.
When I did get to Michigan I was determined to simply enjoy every minute of college. I wanted to win four national championships when I first got to Michigan, that was the goal and those were the expectations. I think the reason I left school, I think hockey-wise, athletically it was the right decision but emotionally it was really hard to leave.
When I got drafted, it was by the Hurricanes. I was just out of the U.S. development program and I knew no matter what that I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. That was a dream of mine and something I really wanted to experience. And after my first year the opportunity had come up that they’d like me to leave school and everything and I just decided that I wasn’t ready as a hockey player or as a person to leave college yet.
I remember having dinner with Jimmy Rutherford, Carolina’s GM, in Detroit. I said, ‘Look, I’m not ready as a hockey player or as a person, and I need one more year after this year.’ Everyone seemed very cool with it and a couple weeks later I was sitting there in class and I got a text message from one of my former teammates, Jack Skilli, now with the Chicago Blackhawks, saying I just got traded to the Kings.
I stepped out of class and my phone was blowing up with all kinds of phone calls and that’s pretty much how I found out. I got on the phone with Ron Hextall when I got to the rink and that was pretty much it. Since I was a college kid, I didn’t have to pack up and move or move a family or anything like that. It was just like, ‘Well, OK, this sounds good.’
From my last college game until my first NHL game, it was short and it was a whirlwind. I think that played to my advantage and it was a fun experience for me. The fact that I didn’t have a lot of time, it didn’t give me a lot of time to think about it. I think in a lot of ways it was a blessing. It was just go out and do it and get your first game out of the way. You’ll never have another first game and everything will take off from there.