Eleven years ago, it was about air horns.
Make that close to nine-hundred air horns, as legend has it.
The unforgettable din of that time period is what stands out the most for Chad Johnson from his time with the Bandits, based in Brooks, Alberta. Having grown up in Calgary, it wasn’t too hard for Johnson to shuffle about 115 miles southeast to continue working toward his dream of playing hockey at the highest level.
The Brooks Bandits had been in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for only a few seasons when Johnson arrived in 2003, and they hadn’t quite escaped “expansion status” in the standings. But in Johnson’s second season, he went from a record of 6-20-3 to 25-16-2, leading the Bandits to the playoffs for the first time.
“It was big – for the team, and the whole town,” Johnson recalls. “The rink [which back then seated only 900, compared to the Bandits' new facility that can accommodate 2,100] was packed. And I think because some of our fans had tried to use air horns at the playoff game in Calgary, but weren’t allowed to, everyone had air horns for our games at home.”
The Bandits won that first ever series in seven games before falling in the league’s semi-finals.
And Johnson – perhaps with some premature hearing loss – was armed with the confidence necessary to continue his hockey journey.
Four years in Fairbanks, Alaska was incredibly rewarding for Chad. As a student at the University of Alaska, he majored in psychology.
“I was fascinated by it,” he said. “But I didn’t really think of it as something I would do post playing career. For me, it was to help me during my career.”
And maybe it helped him survive his junior season, which was derailed by a high-ankle sprain, leaving him with an 0-6 record in seven appearances. His senior season bounce-back in 2008-09, on a team that scored less than two goals per game, was something Nanooks’ supporters will never forget:
- All-American Candidate
- Hobey Baker Top Ten Finalist
- CCHA Player of the Year
- CCHA Goalie of the Year
- CCHA First-Team All-Conference
- CCHA Perani Cup (team and overall) Champion with 49 points
- Named Most Outstanding Nanook Male Athlete of the Year
- Selected as Alaska Hockey’s first-ever Frozen Four Skills Challenge participant (shootout goalie)
- Alaska’s Steve Moria Most Valuable Player, Fan’s Choice Award and Top Playoff Performer
- Three-time CCHA Goalie of the Week
- 1st in NCAA in save percentage (.940)
- 1st in goals-against average (1.66)
- 1.73 GAA, .935 Save Percentage Against NCAA Top 20
|(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert) |
Drafted by Pittsburgh in 2006 but never signed, Johnson’s pro career began in the Rangers organization a half-dozen years ago.
Limited to just six NHL appearances over three seasons, he signed with Phoenix on July 1, 2012. Again, the appearances were limited, but he did post his first NHL shutout – with his parents and twin brother in attendance – as part of his 2-0-2 season.
When free agency opened in July of 2013 he signed with Boston and went on to post an impressive 17-4-3 record with a 2.10 goals-against average with the Bruins.
The critics said he was a product of their system and maybe the Bruins thought so, too. Free agency in 2014 allowed him to walk away from the B's and sign on the Island.
New York gave him his first real, non-entry level, multi-year deal as a pro – at two years and a total of $2.6 million. But in the first season of that deal, a few poor games inflated his numbers, and Johnson felt like he was starting to lose respect around the NHL.
After going 8-8-1 in 19 games, he was traded to Buffalo on March 2, 2015. However, an ankle injury prior to his first scheduled start for the Sabres put his blue and gold debut on hold for eight months.
When starting netminder Robin Lehner was injured on opening night of the 2015-16 season, Chad Johnson came on in relief – his first game (albeit a half one) as a Sabre. When the season ended on April 9, Chad Johnson had been named by his peers as the team's Unsung Hero.
Career highs in games played (45) and wins (22) were aided by a 2.36 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
“This season was really good, a big year for me. And the Unsung Hero Award means tons to me,” Johnson beamed. “I was able to get respect back [here and League-wide] after having so few games last year and none in Buffalo. And the guys played well in front of me and vice versa. So let’s keep it building.”
A 30th birthday is now a month away, and wedding bells will sound two weeks after that for Chad and his fiancé Alexandra in the foothills of Canada’s Rockies.
Of course, his twin brother Curtis, in the competitive spirit of sibling rivalries, is getting married first – this week in the desert heat of Arizona. Their mother has undergone two hip procedures in the past year and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to travel.
So with that in mind, Chad and Alexandra, who had been considering a destination wedding, chose instead to stay close to home. Another example of what makes Chad who he is – a compassionate and family-first kind of guy.
“And Curtis is just less caring,” Chad joked.
But honestly, when thinking back to the numerous interviews we did with Chad this past season, including the footage included in this episode of Beyond Blue and Gold and the footage we didn’t use, Johnson’s genuine concern for – and appreciation of others – is what shone through the most.
On the City of Buffalo: “There’s so much to offer here. It’s family-oriented. It’s a big city, but it’s a town. And the people, I think is the biggest thing, how friendly they are.”
On sharing playing time with Robin (or Linus Ullmark): “You embrace the role you are in and embrace the other guy doing well.”
(Supporting that quote, Johnson was asked, 'Who was his most enjoyable teammate to be around this season?' He immediately responded with Robin, and very quickly added Linus, noting their personalities made it really fun to want to be with them and learn more about these “younger guys.”)
On the Stanley Cup Playoffs: “I don’t watch the playoffs. It’s too hard to watch. I’ll check the scores, but just knowing that other teams are playing and ultimately someone is going to claim the Cup – not having the chance to play against them right now is just too hard.”
On his expiring contract and pending free agency: “I definitely believe there are teams out there that I can help. For myself, it’s a business. If it was easy, I’d want to be back with the Sabres. I want to come back, compete for a starting job, and be a part of the chemistry that was built this past season. I didn’t play 60 games a year all through my 20s, so I still see myself as just reaching my peak and as someone who can play a lot more.”
His first instinct is always to help. But as we learned in Beyond Blue and Gold, goalies gotta eat.