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Tyler Johnson sees Lightning blue in unlikely territory

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tyler Johnson said life remains pretty much the same following a sterling sophomore season in which he was selected for his first NHL All-Star Game and led all playoff participants in goals (13) during Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

No fan mobs awaited Johnson’s arrival at his home in Spokane, Wash., where he is spending the majority of his off-season.

The welcome-home parade was non-existent.

There was, however, the overwhelming presence of a familiar shade of blue.

Johnson said the amount of Tampa Bay Lightning flags grew exponentially around Spokane, partly due to the presence of a hometown boy on the Lightning roster, partly because of a natural affinity to root for a young, up-and-coming team against a quartet of Original Six opponents during the playoffs.

“One thing that’s been really cool is I knew Spokane and the Northwest became huge Tampa fans but actually being home and being able to see everybody up there and see Lightning flags in restaurants and stuff is kind of an amazing thing since Florida and Washington are so far away,” Johnson said Wednesday while visiting Tampa to have his right wrist, injured during Game 1 of the Cup Final, examined. “I think people are more knowledgeable about Tampa and everything, which is great.”

Johnson, who has spent much of the off-season relaxing at his Washington lake house with friends and family, said he’s been blown away by the numerous Lightning flags he’s seen on cars, boats and businesses nearly 3,000 miles away from Tampa by car.

“I think when you have success like we had, people jump on board and people are excited about it,” Johnson said. “I think you look at our team, look at our organization, everything that we do in the community, people like to get behind that. People like to see everything that’s going on. I think it’s just one of the teams that’s easy to get behind.”

Johnson’s corner of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have a natural NHL rooting interest. The Vancouver Canucks are the nearest team but over six-and-a-half hours away. Seattle has been bandied as a potential NHL expansion city but those efforts stagnated over the summer.

Perhaps the Lightning, headed by the instantly-likable, easily-approachable Washington state native, can fill the void.

“I remember growing up, there wasn’t much NHL presence in Spokane or the Northwest,” Johnson said. “You have the Vancouver Canucks there, but quite frankly they’re kind of far away. They weren’t necessarily on TV. There’s really not a whole lot of Vancouver Canuck fans in that area. There’s been talk about the Seattle team and everything. I think (the Cup run) just kind of generates a lot of buzz about hockey and a lot of people have become Tampa fans from the success we had.”

Johnson said he hasn’t taken too much vacation since the Lightning season ended in mid-June, save for the occasional journey to Seattle. In July, Johnson hosted a hockey skills clinic as part of Hockey Fest in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Hockey Fest, started last year, raises money to help offset the cost of hockey for local families.

“One of the coolest things I get to be a part of every year is Hockey Fest, which is our charity fundraiser/hockey game,” Johnson said. “You have guys like Wayne Gretzky involved, Brett Hull. We had the Benn brothers [Jordan and Jamie] up there this year. The list just goes on. When you have guys like that playing on the same ice, it’s pretty special.”

Lightning training camp doesn’t open until mid-September. Johnson said he’ll spend the remaining month of his off-season in his hometown, relaxing near the water, probably on a boat.

“I just love being home, love being on the water with my family and friends,” he said.

And, judging by the number of Lightning supporters, Spokane loves having Johnson home.

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