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By Chris Bayee, 08/13/18, 11:00AM PDT


Hockey came full circle for the Johnson family this past week.

Longtime Anaheim Jr. Ducks defenseman Ryan Johnson committed to the University of Minnesota, the same school his father Craig played at in the early 1990s.

The Aug. 9 decision in favor of Minnesota came after careful consideration. 

“I went on a couple of visits there and just fell in love with the school,” Ryan Johnson said. “The campus is unbelievable, the hockey history is unbelievable. All of the schools that recruited me were great, and it was a tough choice.

“At the end of the day I went with my heart.” 

They say home is where the heart is, and the Johnson family’s roots in the Land of 10,000 Lakes run deep. Craig Johnson grew up in St. Paul, Minn., and was a top-five finalist for the state’s Mr. Hockey award in 1990 before scoring 135 points in three seasons at Minnesota. In between, the St. Louis Blues drafted him in the second round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. He made the 1994 U.S. Olympic team and played 14 pro seasons, several with the Los Angeles Kings and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. His family settled in Orange County and he eventually became the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches. 

“It was Ryan’s decision to go where he wanted,” Craig Johnson said. “All of the schools he looked at are great programs. He’s happy. I’m happy. Our family is proud of him and what he’s become.”  

Ryan Johnson is the 15th player with ties to the Jr. Ducks to commit to a Division I school in the past four years, and he was the third member of this past season’s Jr. Ducks 16U AAA team to make a D-I commitment, following forwards Josh Groll (Michigan) and Jonathan Panisa (UMass-Amherst). 

And Johnson is the fifth 2001 birth year with ties to the club to make a D-I commitment; fellow defensemen Cam York (Boston College) and Nick Kent (Quinnipiac) are the others. York spent eight years with the Jr. Ducks, same as Johnson, and Kent played six years with the club. York played on the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 team this past season, while Kent played juniors for British Columbia Hockey League champion Wenatchee. 

“It’s special that Ryan, Jonathan, Cam and Nick all started together as Mites,” added Craig Johnson, who along with Scott Niedermayer coached the ‘01 group. “Scott brought a lot, too. We were intentional with how we developed that team. 

“We weren’t about developing just defensemen or just forwards, we wanted to develop total hockey players.” 

Craig Johnson said his four seasons playing in Europe influenced his teaching style for the ’01s.

“We were a passing team, a movement team,” said Johnson, who also is the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches. “We played a lot of small-area games. We encouraged them to jump into the play, and that helped their development. How we practiced and how we played, allowing them to try things, make mistakes and learn from them, that helped these players learn to see the ice and develop good hockey IQs.”

That is clearly the case with Ryan Johnson, said Alex Kim, the Jr. Ducks Director of Player Personnel and Craig Johnson’s co-coach the past two seasons, when Ryan drew increasingly more attention from D-I recruiters. And no wonder, the 6-foot, 165-pounder put up 45 points in 35 games in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League and another 15 in 10 CAHA games this past season. There is much more to his skill set than just points, Kim said. 

“Not only does he have a gifted skill set, but he works at it constantly,” Kim said. “That’s why he’s had the success he’s had already.

“He processes the game at a different level. That’s probably his best attribute. He has the ability to dictate play. And Ryan brings a certain intensity to the game. When it’s on, when things are tight, he’s focused and he’s at his best.”

Johnson will play junior for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey league this coming season. The Stampede made him the highest-drafted Californian ever in the USHL Futures Draft when he went third overall in May 2017. He’s been a regular at USA Hockey Select camps the past three summers, and had he not been injured he had a good shot at joining Groll on Team USA’s Under-18 Select Team that competed in the prestigious Hlinka Gretzky Cup this month in Alberta, Canada.

Johnson and Groll teamed up on Team USA’s gold-medal-winning team at last summer’s U17 Five Nations Cup. That came on the heels of attending the U.S. National Development Team Program’s evaluation camp with York and Kent in March 2017. 

“It’s really cool to see all of these guys going places,” Johnson said. “We had a special group.” 

Team success also has been a large part of the equation for Johnson and his peers. After a succession of tournament titles as a younger player, Johnson contributed to a pair of medal-winning performances at the USA Hockey Youth Nationals this past spring.

Johnson had six points at Pittsburgh in April, when the Jr. Ducks’ 16U team won a bronze medal, the club’s first at Tier I. A few weeks before that he had 11 points during Santa Margarita Catholic High School’s run to a national championship.  

The biggest constant in his hockey journey has been his father, whom he was quick to credit.

“My dad played a huge role in my development,” Ryan said. “He inspired my teammates and me to be our best selves every day.”

The dynamic didn’t go unnoticed by Kim, who also noted the Johnsons’ patience in what can be a whirlwind world of college recruiting. 

“They took their time, and there’s something to be said for that,” Kim noted. “They focused on Ryan’s development, and they did a good job of that. They didn’t rush the process. 

“Craig had to balance a lot being a father and a coach. That can be tough to deal with. But Craig always made time for every player, always focused on helping everyone. I learned a lot from watching him interact with Ryan.”

When he enrolls in 2020, Ryan Johnson will become just the third California native to play at Minnesota, following goaltender John Blue and forward Brannon McManus. Blue played for the Gophers in the mid-1980s, was on the 1988 Olympic team and eventually reached the NHL. McManus is a rising sophomore at the university. Blue, ironically, now coaches one of his sons in the Jr. Ducks program. 

“I know there is a lot of work ahead of me,” Johnson said. “My main focus is doing my best in Sioux Falls this season and next.” 

That goal comes as no surprise to the man who oversees the Jr. Ducks program.

“All of the time and effort Ryan put in over the years has paid off for him,” said Art Trottier, who also is vice president of The Rinks. “He is a model player and a model person. Our hockey community couldn’t be prouder of him or happier for his family.”