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Perseverance pays off for NHL All-Star Tyler Johnson

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

There was a moment when he thought about packing away his hockey sticks and hanging his skates up for good.

Three seasons starring in the Western Hockey League for the Spokane Chiefs barely registered on the radar of National Hockey League scouts.

He led Spokane to an WHL championship and was named playoff MVP in his first season with the team. Later that year, he helped Spokane win its second Memorial Cup. By his third year with the Chiefs, he was the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging over a point a game.

In 2010, he tallied three goals and two assists in seven games skating against some of the best Under-20 players in the world during Team USA’s gold medal run at the IIHF World Junior Championships.

On every level, he produced.

And won.

Yet, when it came to the NHL draft, his name was conspicuously absent, his height, listed at 5-foot-9, being the main reason teams shied away.

Maybe it was time to try something new.

He’d always wanted to go into the medical field. Perhaps he should apply to some colleges, start looking into med school.

Tyler Johnson, the anesthesiologist?

“Through the years, I kind of got a little bit more disappointed because I was playing with these players and going to these camps and competing with everybody and seeing them have all the success and signing, and I wasn’t able to do it,” Johnson said. “When I was 20 years old, right before I went back to juniors in Spokane, I almost didn’t know if I even wanted to go back as a 20 year old because I thought that I didn’t want to be a 20-year-old freshman in college somewhere. I thought maybe I should just start my life and start my career somewhere.”

Ken Johnson could sense the frustration in his son’s voice. He encouraged Tyler not to worry about the draft snub, to focus on getting better as a hockey player and, most importantly, to enjoy himself out on the ice.

The suggestion was exactly what Tyler needed.

“I wasn’t having fun anymore,” Tyler Johnson said. “I was stressing out about it way too much. My dad’s advice was probably the only thing that kept me going. Went back my 20-year-old year, had a great year and had a lot of fun.”

Johnson scored a WHL-leading 53 goals for Spokane during the 2010-11 season. His 62 assists were fifth-best in the league and his 115 points were second among all WHL skaters.

By January of that season, NHL suitors started lining up for Johnson’s services.

On March 7, 2011, Johnson signed a free agent contract with Tampa Bay, the persistence of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman factoring heavily in Johnson’s decision.

“(Yzerman) just made me really feel at home,” Johnson said.

Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray recognized Johnson’s talent in 2007 while working as Hockey Canada’s head scout. Murray was scouring the WHL, OHL and QMJHL for players to make up Canada’s Under-18 team.

Murray couldn’t help but focus on the undersized American from Spokane, Wash., who played with a tenacity few possessed.

“I noticed three things about Tyler, and I’m not sure in what order exactly,” Murray said. “He’s tremendously competitive, he’s very highly-skilled and he’s an elite skater. The only thing he was lacking was height.”

When Murray joined the Lightning three years later, Johnson was the first player Murray recommended to Yzerman.

“One of the things we’re always looking for as a staff were undrafted free agents, and Tyler was at the top of my list,” Murray said. “Most often those signings occur in February or March. When he was able to be signed, we were one of the teams that were aggressive in talking to him. Steve did a great job of talking to him and his parents and convincing him to be a part of our team in Tampa.”

During Johnson’s first season of professional hockey with the Lightning’s then-AHL affiliate in Norfolk, the Admirals, coached by current Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, won 28-straight regular season games and captured their first-ever Calder Cup.

The next season, Johnson was named the AHL’s Most Valuable Player after tallying a league-leading 37 goals for the Syracuse Crunch and made his NHL debut as a late-season Lightning call-up.

Johnson skated in all 82 games last season and finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy (NHL rookie of the year), his 24 goals tied for first with Calder winner Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado) among all league rookies.

In 2014-15, he leads the Lightning in scoring (48 points – 17 goals, 31 assists) and is the pivot on the Bolts’ formidable Triplets line (LW Ondrej Palat and RW Nikita Kucherov), arguably, the NHL’s top line.

“Everybody sees the points Johnny’s putting up, but yet you look at that plus-minus, he’s doing so many good things away from the puck,” said Lightning Associate Coach Rick Bowness, referring to Johnson’s plus-26 plus-minus rating, which ranks second in the NHL behind Kucherov (plus-28). “Sometimes the plus-minus is strictly a reflection of putting a lot of pucks at the net, a great offense. But his plus-minus is really based on he plays so well on both ends of the ice. He is so good in our zone. You could show highlights of him every game making the right reads defensively, always being where he’s supposed to be and competing very hard.”

On Sunday, Johnson will play in his first NHL All-Star Game.

“I would say Johnny’s been playing like this for a few years now, hence why he was nominated for an award last year,” Cooper said. “He’s just carried that on.”

Five years ago, Johnson was ready to trade in his skates for a stethoscope.

Now, he’s recognized as one of the best hockey players in the world.

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