ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The steps for Stephen Johns' return are going to be arduous. He discovered that Saturday in his first NHL game in almost two years.
Johns is returning from a bout with post-traumatic headaches that kept him sidelined for 22 months. And after two stellar games in the AHL, the 27-year-old defenseman stepped onto the NHL ice Saturday in a 7-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Johns played 18:29, had two shots on goal, two hits, one penalty and was minus-1. It was both good and bad, depending on who you asked.
Stars coach Rick Bowness said: "For his first game, he did a lot of good things, he really did. He showed that he's going to be a big help to our hockey club."
While Johns himself didn't feel he played well.
"I was pretty rough with the puck," he said. "I felt like I was in quicksand all night. It just tells you the difference in level of play from the minors to the NHL. I knew it was going to be faster, but 22 months off, I'm definitely going to need some time to shake the rust off."
The Stars do not play for eight straight days. The NHL gives each team a five-day break and the Stars will see their's end with the three-day All-Star Break. They will be back on the ice for practice a week from Sunday and will play Tampa Bay at home on Monday, Jan. 27.
Video: DAL@MIN: Johns on playing in first game in 22 months
Johns said he expects to skate on his own for a lot of the break.
"Honestly, I wish I could lace 'em up and go back out right now. I think everybody in this room probably feels the same way," Johns said after the loss. "I'm going to treat this bye week like a training camp for me. Obviously, I need to get in better shape, I was breathing pretty hard out there today.
"It's not really a break for me, which I'm fine with. I've had a long break."
Johns suffered a concussion near the end of the 2017-18 season. Then, a few days into training camp to start the 2018-19 season, he started experiencing headaches. He missed all of last season, and has battled to get back this season. He started feeling better last month and worked himself up to a two-game conditioning stint in the AHL. He passed that test, and was able to play Saturday.
"The games in Austin -- the first night was pretty special, something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Johns said before Saturday's game. "I think just getting through that game and knowing that I can play this game again and be physical at the same time. … It felt really good to hit people, and it felt even better to get hit and felt good to be sore and block shots. All the aches and pains that came with the game, it felt good to have that again."
It also felt good for teammates to see him play. Stars captain Jamie Benn said having Johns on the ice was a motivating presence.
"It's great," Benn said. "He's been through a lot as a player and a person. We've all seen the hard work he's put in and what he's gone through outside of hockey, so it's great to see him back out there tonight."
Asked what players can do to help Johns, Benn said everyone can chip in.
Video: DAL@MIN: Benn on Stars' lopsided shutout loss to Wild
"I think communication is the biggest thing," Benn said. "When you're hurt and not playing, you kind of feel like you're distanced from the team. And when you're out for as long as he was, I'm sure he felt pretty lonely at times. So communication is the biggest thing when one of your teammates, one of your friends, is hurt and out for that period of time."
Johns said that while being away from the team was difficult, he did feel plenty of support.
"That support system was amazing," he said pointing to friends, family, his girl friend and people like Stars general manager Jim Nill. "And I have to say, hundreds, if not thousands, of fans and people just flooding my DMs on Twitter and Instagram that kept me going and made me want to keep playing this game I love so much. From every direction, nothing but support. I can't commend Jim Nill enough for checking in on me every once in a while and just telling me that I was still part of the team and still a part of the process. ...
"I couldn't be happier that I'm in this organization."
Asked what he missed most about not playing, Johns said everything.
"For people who play and that have been in locker rooms, they understand the culture of it, and I was kind of by myself there for 22 months and that was probably the hardest days of my life, for sure," Johns said. "But it puts a lot of things in perspective and life is really good, and it's been really good here the past couple weeks. So, hopefully, it keeps turning that way."
Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Tampa Bay Lightning when they return home to American Airlines Center on Monday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. Get your tickets now!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika, and listen to his podcast.