A huge night for American hockey ended up being capped by a seminal moment for California hockey.
Longtime Anaheim Jr. Ducks defensemen Cam York and Ryan Johnson were selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft at Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 21. They are only the fourth and fifth California-born and –trained players to be taken in the first round and the first since Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem were selected in 2010.
York, whom the Philadelphia Flyers picked 14th overall, became the highest drafted Californian ever, surpassing Bennett, who went at No. 20. Johnson was selected 31st overall by Buffalo with a pick the Sabres obtained in a trade with St. Louis for Ryan O’Reilly.
“We’re pretty excited – not just for the Jr. Ducks – but for youth hockey in California,” said Art Trottier, the club’s president as well as the vice president of The Rinks. “These are two players who started with us as Mites. Ryan stayed in California until this season, demonstrating you don’t have to leave the state to develop.
“To have two players taken in the first round of an NHL draft – who would have thought?”
LONGTIME JR. DUCKS TEAMMATES
The longtime friends, who are two of eight members of the Jr. Ducks’ 2001 birth year group to make college commitments, were part of a banner night for USA Hockey. Nine Americans were taken in the first round, and all but Johnson came from the U.S. National Team Development Program. The NTDP’s eight first-round selections are a record for one organization at the draft.
York was the fifth defenseman taken, as well as the sixth American, while Johnson was the 10th defenseman selected.
“I was incredibly proud to watch Cam and Ryan get selected in the first round,” said Ryan’s father Craig, the boys’ longtime coach and the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches. “The boys grew up playing together on the same teams; it was definitely a special night.”
Johnson’s selection also gives him a small measure of bragging rights over his father, who along with Scott Niedermayer coached the 2001 birth year group. Craig was taken 33rd overall in the 1990 draft, an event also held, ironically enough, in Vancouver, though the older Johnson was not in attendance when he was selected by St. Louis.
“The whole weekend was exciting,” Ryan said. “Just being able to be there was special. Being able to share with my family made it extra special. … Cam and I ran into each other multiple times. He was excited, too, and enjoying it with his family.”
The family celebrations were made even more special because Trottier and other Jr. Ducks officials, such as Audrey Hodges and Rosanna Sitzman, as well as Niedermayer attended the draft.
Ryan Johnson, who helped Sioux Falls win the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup championship this spring, is committed to play at Minnesota, the same school his father starred at in the early 1990s before going on to a 14-year pro career, including parts of 10 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Los Angeles Kings.
YORK LIVES UP TO HIS BILLING
York’s selection in the first round was all but a given. He was rated as the No. 12 North American skater in the final NHL Central Scouting Service rankings and had been talked about as a top prospect for several years.
He – and his NTDP cohort – filled stat sheets and won games in bunches this season. The 6-foot, 175-pound York enjoyed a breakout season with 65 points (14 goals) in 63 games with the U-18 team, added another 16 points in 15 international games and seven more points in 16 games against college foes. That’s 88 points in 94 games overall.
York also set an NTDP record with a seven-point game in mid-January that included a hat trick. He also helped Team USA to a bronze medal at the World Under-18 tournament, leading all defensemen with 11 points and a plus-13 rating.
““Hearing my name get called was special. But spending time with all my teammates who got drafted as well, celebrating with them was probably the most memorable for me,” said York, who is committed to play at Michigan. “We worked extremely hard. To see everyone be drafted. I know everyone’s happy. To see it all pay off, it was super cool for all of us.”
Both players are headed to NHL development camps this week, and for York that means his first up-close taste of the City of Brotherly Love.
“I’m super happy to be a Flyer,” York said. “I think my playing style is perfect for their system. I can’t wait to get out there and meet all the guys and get started. The fans are passionate. They want to win, and they’re going to let you know how they feel. It’s exciting. I’m sure there’s a lot of obstacles, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
JOHNSON BUILT MOMENTUM
Ryan Johnson went into the draft rated the 33rd North American skater, an early second-round projection. But like York, he continued to improve as the season went along, ultimately helping Sioux Falls win the USHL championship.
He started the season as the Stampede’s youngest player and finished with their best plus-minus rating (plus-24) and second most points by a defenseman (25) during the regular season. He was named to the USHL’s All-Rookie First Team and then added eight points in 12 postseason games, including a goal and an assist in Sioux Falls’ decisive Clark Cup win.
York and the NTDP played against Sioux Falls this season, giving him a front-row perspective on his longtime friend and youth hockey teammate’s progress.
“He’s extremely talented, extremely skilled. When we played him you could tell that,” York said. “He moves the puck really well, he’s a really good skater, he has what it takes to play at the next level. I’m really excited to see what he does next year.”
JR. DUCKS' PROCESS PAYS DIVIDENDS
York and Johnson are two of eight 2001s who have played for the Jr. Ducks, many for several years, that have made college commitments in the past couple of seasons. While the NHL recognition is nice, providing more opportunities to advance in hockey was the club’s goal when its AAA program was launched in 2013, Craig Johnson said. The 2001s – then Pee Wees – were the youngest birth year at AAA.
“When I first took these 01s to AAA, I believe we were looking at more of a development route to play college or junior hockey,” he said. “It’s up to the individuals on the team. They had goals. Cam and Ryan, it takes an incredible lot of work to get to the point they’re at.
“It’s not just what we did, it’s what other people have done behind the scenes, it’s what they’ve done behind the scenes – their commitment to the off-ice work, the on-ice work. If you would have ever asked me, our goal was to make them good people first and good hockey players second.
“The kids we had worked hard and were very respectful. When we played teams from other parts of the country we were very competitive. They created a special bond playing for the Jr. Ducks.”
That commitment has been obvious to Ryan’s mother Brittany.
“This is so incredibly special for Ryan to get selected,” she said. “Obviously he’s had such a passion for the game. For him to be coached by his father, who has such a love for hockey and Ryan just sharing that has been really special.
“He’s always that (passion). You saw it from a very young age, always having a stick in his hand and wanting to play knee hockey or go outside and shoot pucks. He’s always been that way. … Later on, when he has a goal and you can see the drive turn into everything he does. He’s always had a really strong work ethic and that’s translated into his success as well.”
She also cited the camaraderie the Jr. Ducks team fostered away from the ice as well.
“Anyone will tell you who plays hockey – you grow these relationships with these families,” Brittany said. “They’re such great boys, not just great players. To see them have the success and go on is amazing. They’ll have different paths, some may get there later. We’re very fortunate to have played with the Jr. Ducks and developed relationships with all of the families, and to watch these kids grow up to be great players and great people.”
York reflected on where he and his friends started and now where the game is taking them, too.
““I think it’s super exciting and kind of crazy at the same time,” he said. “When we were younger we dreamed of being in those positions and never really thought it would actual happen. For it to happen, and a couple of Cali kids (getting drafted) is super special.
“Scott and Craig helped all of us, but for me it’s been more of off the ice. They both have been at the professional level and know what it’s like to handle the business part of it. Reflecting on that side of the game has helped me be more of a pro.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
York and Johnson also are building extensive international resumes.
In addition to the World Under-18 Championships, York in 2018 helped Team USA claim silver in the U18 Men’s World Challenge, leading all defensemen in the tournament with six assists. He has helped the U.S. to gold at the Five Nations Cup, the Four Nations Cup and the World U17 Challenge.
Johnson also has represented Team USA on multiple occasions. He was part of the U.S. team that won gold at the Five Nations Cup in the summer of 2017, and he also won gold at the World Junior A Challenge 19U in Bonnyville, Alberta, this past December.
There’s a good chance both will don the Red, White and Blue again at some point in the future. But for now the longtime teammates are linked as the Jr. Ducks’ first-ever homegrown first-round draft choices.
“My son said to me, ‘This is why you do what you do,’ ” Trottier said. “These are two kids young players can look up to.
“This is also why Henry and Susan (Samueli, the Ducks’ owners) do what they do.”
York believes this is only the beginning.
“The Ducks have done an unbelievable job,” he said. “The coaches they have are unbelievable. The resources they have and are getting is super cool. The game of hockey is growing, and you’re going to see more and more kids from the West Coast in my shoes. It’s just exciting.
“It’s an expensive sport, so some kids don't have the opportunity, but they’re doing a great job with allowing kids to use equipment and skate. They’re promoting it really well, and it’s super cool to see.”