Defenseman Stephen Johns has made a career out of rising to the challenge.
The Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul, Minn. was buzzing on a Saturday night this past March. The venue played host to a tilt between St. Cloud State University and the University of Notre Dame, the second of two NCAA West Regional semifinal matchups.
It was a game indicative of playoff hockey; fraught with intensity, drama and emotion, which made it all the more fitting that sudden-death overtime was required to find a victor. After over 17 minutes of hair-raising overtime play, St. Cloud’s Nic Dowd finally found the net, and with one flick of his wrists sent his Huskies to the regional final and ended the season for the Irish, as well as the college careers for their senior class.
However, for defenseman Stephen Johns, the operative word was college career.
Exactly one week after his Irish went down swinging in the NCAA Tournament, Johns found himself in Abbotsford, British Columbia, swapping out his blue and gold uniform for a red and white one, as he made his professional debut with the Rockford IceHogs. Johns made the transition from college to the pros - which takes some players years to do - in a matter of seven days.
Throughout his hockey career, Johns has made climbing through the ranks seem simple. From youth to juniors to the college ranks to the pros, the defenseman has not missed a step, and now finds himself as one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ top young prospects on the blue line.
There are several possible explanations as to why the 22-year-old has been able to cruise his way to the AHL, explanations that can be garnered by studying his game or talking to various coaches and scouts. But according to Johns himself, the reason for his success is much more basic; it’s a testament to who he is as a person.
“That’s just the blue collar mentality that I have, and the way that I was raised,” Johns said. “You just go until you achieve what you set out to do.”
Johns grew up in Wampum, a tiny town of around 700 in western Pennsylvania. He began his hockey journey playing for the Pittsburgh Hornets AAA program, before leaving home in 2008 to spend two seasons with the US National Team Development Program. His time in Ann Arbor turned out to be a springboard to a couple appearances on the national stage, where he represented the United States in the U18 World Junior Championships in 2010 and the U20 World Juniors in 2012.
His experience against top-tier competition, both in North America and on the international stage led to a pair of momentous achievements in the summer of 2010. First when he decided that he would attend Notre Dame in the fall, and second when he heard his name called where every aspiring hockey player dreams of hearing it- at the NHL Entry Draft.
The Blackhawks selected Johns 60th overall with their second-round pick, and suddenly the Pennsylvania product had a two-pronged Chicago connection, both with his school and in the big leagues.
“It was nice to be so close to Chicago, whenever we had an off weekend we would try and catch a game or just enjoy the city,” Johns explained. “It was great being able to follow [the Hawks] easier than other draftees could follow their teams.”
South Bend was more than just a brief stop in the road for the blue liner, as in what is quickly becoming the road less-traveled for high-end college players, Johns opted to finish out his collegiate eligibility, rather than hightailing early for the pro ranks. While many NHL draftees succumb to the tempting prospect of a professional paycheck and the chance to sign a contract, Johns saw a different opportunity in staying at school.
“I knew I wanted to go back after my junior year, I figured why not go back and get my degree and be able to play a huge role and take on a leadership role while being assistant captain,” Johns said. “I was practicing every single day and playing games so I thought it was a big step in my development and good for my confidence.”
IceHogs associate coach Mark Osiecki, a man well versed in the NCAA hockey scene, vouches for the additional benefits a player can reap by going the distance in their college career.
“Staying four years allows you to physically mature,” Osiecki explained. “In college [Johns] also got to play in situations that he wouldn’t have seen if he left college after one or two years. He’s able to play on the power play, and gain confidence in his puck skills, where that might not be his game at the high level.”
There are parallels between player and coach, as Osiecki also made the jump from college to the pros, beginning with his tenure as a defenseman for the University of Wisconsin from 1987-90. After winning an NCAA title in 1990 as an alternate captain for the Badgers, Osiecki embarked on a five-year career in the NHL and IHL.
But since then Osiecki has been able to see both levels from behind the bench, starting as an assistant coach for his alma mater before spending three years as the head coach of the bourgeoning program at Ohio State, which led him to Rockford last year. This pedigree gives the coach added insight on how a complete college career can translate to a successful professional career.
“The three-and-four year college guys [in the AHL] are able to jump into pro hockey and handle so many different situations,” the IceHogs coach explained. “They can step into the American Hockey League or NHL level and stay. The one-or-two year guys might be able to make the jump but it’s much more difficult.”
Johns’ four-year body of work at Notre Dame paid instant dividends after his college career came to an end that March evening in Minnesota. The defenseman did not have to battle his way through the lower-level leagues for a shot at a tryout, or grind his way through a training camp for a roster spot, rather he only had to wait a week before he was inserted into the IceHogs lineup.
Johns not only suited up for Rockford’s final eight games of the 2013-14 season, he thrived, as he put up five points (1g-4a), including his first professional goal in his second-career game. It was a whirlwind couple of weeks for the young prospect.
“It was weird, I went from being in a playoff race to being crushed with my college career ending to being thrown right back into a playoff hunt,” Johns recalled. “It was a weird dilemma but the guys brought me in well and made me feel part of the team right away.”
While the change of scenery took some getting used to, on the ice Johns found the transition to the AHL much easier.
“I didn’t think it was that huge of an adjustment from college to the AHL; the game was a little faster and the guys were a little more skilled. I just had to keep the game simple and try to make the right plays,” he explained. “I thought I played well, so hopefully I can take that into this year with some momentum.”
Johns was able to utilize that experience this fall when he skated for the Blackhawks’ rookie team in an NHL prospect tournament in London, Ontario, and during Chicago’s training camp, where he appeared in one preseason game.
“It was incredible to be able to play with those guys, and be with an organization like the Blackhawks,” Johns said. “We all know the situation and their depth up there, but you have to be optimistic and be ready at all times.”
This hope, which started as childhood aspiration, is now tantalizingly close to becoming realized for Johns, who after busting down every barricade standing in his way through his career, now stands on the doorstep of the NHL. However, being so close to the ultimate goal has not at all changed the mindset of the self-motivated defenseman. According to Johns, the only thing that will get him over his last hurdle is the same thing that got him so close to the finish line.
“I just haven’t fulfilled my dream yet, and I will never stop until I finally do,” Johns said. “Until then I’m just going to keep working.”