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Former Jr. Ducks Johnson, Groll to meet at Frozen Four

By Chris Bayee, 04/04/22, 4:15PM PDT


The 16U AAA teammates play now for Minnesota and Minnesota State

Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson and Minnesota State forward Josh Groll - former Jr. Ducks 16U AAA teammates - will meet in a Frozen Four game Thursday night. Photos courtesy of Minnesota Athletics and Minnesota State Athletics

A pair of former Jr. Ducks 16U AAA teammates will share the stage at NCAA hockey’s biggest event, the Frozen Four, on Thursday, April 7.

Minnesota junior Ryan Johnson and Minnesota State forward Josh Groll, who played together during the 2017-18 season, will square off with a berth in the national title game at stake. 

“One of them will have a chance to win a national championship, which is exciting,” Jr. Ducks 16U AAA coach and club Director of Player Development Alex Kim said. “They’ve worked hard to get where they’ve gotten. It’s exciting as one of their former coaches to see them on such a grand stage, and it’s great for the club to see them achieve this.”

Johnson and Groll were part of the first Jr. Ducks team to medal at Tier I when they helped their squad to a bronze at the USA Hockey Youth Nationals in 2018. The summer before that, they helped the United States Under-17 Select Team win a gold medal at the Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic.

Both players’ teams had to fight through some adversity in the NCAA Regionals in late March. Minnesota trailed defending national champion UMass 3-1 at one point in what turned out to be a 4-3 victory. Johnson scored the first Minnesota goal in that game. The Gophers then shut out Western Michigan 3-0 to clinch their Frozen Four berth. 

“Down 3-1 in the first regional game – we had no doubts. We had faith in coming back,” Johnson said. “I think our team really came together those two games. We played some of our best hockey we’ve played all year. I liked how our team responded.” 

Minnesota State won two one-goal games in its regional, edging Harvard 4-3 and Notre Dame 1-0. Groll had two assists, including on the winning goal, in the win against Harvard. 

A third former Jr. Ducks player, defenseman Kyle Mayhew, plays important minutes for Denver, which takes on Michigan in the early game Thursday.

Johnson and Groll will be all business when it comes to this week’s matchup.

“Right now, it’s play hard against each other,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to think too much about the years we’ve played with each other. Once we’re on the ice it will be a pretty intense battle.

“You’re happy when you see your friend’s team winning. I was happy to see them advance. Now that they’re playing us, it changes a little bit.”

Ryan's father Craig, the Jr. Ducks' director of coaches, also played for the Gophers. 

Given their positions – Johnson is one of the Gophers’ top defenseman and plays on the power play, and Groll is a winger who also kills penalties – it’s highly likely they’ll run into each other on Thursday (5:30 p.m. PDT ESPNU)

Johnson, who was a first-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, knows exactly what he would be up against in the eventuality he’s matched up against Groll. 

“Look out for his shot,” Johnson said. “He’s a very strong player. He can really throw the body around and hit. That shows he has a diverse game – he can hit and he can score goals. He’s very skilled. He’s not just doing the same thing every shift. He’s unpredictable, and we have to be aware of that.”

This won’t be their first postseason meeting. Both played in the United States Hockey League after playing in California through age 16. Johnson helped the Sioux Falls Stampede capture the junior circuit’s playoff title, the Clark Cup, in 2019, defeating the Chicago Steele, which Groll played for at the time. Johnson enrolled at Minnesota that fall, while Groll was traded to Lincoln of the USHL and averaged more than a point per game.

Groll then went to Michigan. He suffered a shoulder injury and missed most of last season. He then transferred to Minnesota State last summer and has fit in well.

“That’s quite a story in itself,” Kim said. “His ability to adjust to something new and contribute right away is impressive.”

More impressive, the duo’s former coach says, is player under both jerseys. 

“Both are very nice young men,” Kim said. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind, how they were off the ice. They were great teammates, and they understood how to build a winning culture, which was important in our success at 16s. 

“To see them reach this point is not surprising when you know what their character is like. Both are game changers on – and off – the ice. Both have been good role models for younger players in the club. They will do things no one ever sees to help others out.”

In addition to their families, an added bonus for Johnson and Groll will be that at least three of their former 16U teammates are planning to attend the Frozen Four. Dalton Garcia, Ryan Green and Jarrett Overland all play for the Eastern Hockey League’s Walpole Express. The trio saw Johnson and the Gophers play at the Worcester Regional and are heading to Boston to root for their former Jr. Ducks teammates.

“It will be an added bonus to see those guys again,” Johnson said.