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After the longest of journeys, Anchorage's Justin Johnson arrived in the NHL to fulfill his dream

Doyle Woody
Justin Johnson of the Aces, left, and Trevor Hunt of Stockton get reacquainted before the puck even drops to begin the game Friday evening April 2, 2010 at Sullivan Arena. ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Justin Johnson's long, grinding climb from the lower rungs of professional hockey to world's best league was as much odyssey as journey.

The former college walk-on was twice released by his hometown Alaska Aces of the ECHL, and he endured four seasons on that circuit before he even advanced to the next level. Johnson played in Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Ohio, New Hampshire and Connecticut, all while crossing into his 30s, an age when hockey generally shoves fringe players from the game and reminds them it doubles as a business.

Friday night, though, after all those travels and travails, and suggestions he call it a career and move on, the former East High, UAA and Aces right winger finally reached the promised land: He debuted in the National Hockey League.

Johnson wore his favored No. 49 for the New York Islanders and shared the ice in Newark, N.J., with such legends as New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur and Devils winger Jaromir Jagr, first-ballot locks for the Hall of Fame.

Skating on the Islanders' fourth line in a 3-2 shootout victory, Johnson played 11 shifts for 7 minutes, 15 seconds of ice time. Johnson, 32, delivered three hits and a plus-minus rating of even.

In his eighth full pro season, after literally fighting his way through the ranks -- Johnson has fought more than 130 times in his career -- he became the 14th Alaskan to play in the NHL. He also became the 10th Ace to play for that franchise and then make his NHL debut, and the ninth former UAA player to ascend to the NHL.

Johnson also joined the legion of more than 500 players who have played in the ECHL and worked their way to the NHL.

"It was a thrill -- thrill, thrill, thrill, man,'' Johnson said by cellphone. "I didn't feel like my feet touched the ground all day. I got on the ice for warm-ups, and there's Jagr, there's (Patrik) Elias. I started stretching, and turned to stretch my oblique, and there's Brodeur.

"I was like, 'I guess we're doing this for real.' ''

The news of Johnson's NHL debut was greeted by his hockey friends with joy, and probably no less so by countless friends and acquaintances of a guy so out-going and upbeat that almost everyone in Anchorage hockey refers to him as J.J. or The Governor.

Johnson's friend and fellow East High alum Scott Gomez is the most accomplished Alaska hockey player in history. He has twice won the Stanley Cup, skated in more than 1,100 regular-season and playoff games, and earned roughly $60 million in his career. He never skated a shift in the minor leagues and debuted in the NHL at 19. Still, Gomez, 34, who plays for the Florida Panthers, seemed more elated about Johnson's NHL debut than his own as a Devils center in 1999.

"I think I speak for the whole Alaskan hockey community when I say no one deserves this more than J.J.,'' Gomez texted. "He is the definition of perseverance and determination. And most of all, he can be an example, for any young athlete from the great state of Alaska, that giving up is never an option.

"Like I told him when I talked to him (Friday), 'You will always have the last laugh on those that (said) you should stop playing hockey. Your peers, and everyone in Alaska, are forever proud of you.' ''

The possibility that Johnson might reach the NHL first surfaced in earnest last month, when he was playing for the Islanders' AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, in his fourth AHL season. New York general manager Garth Snow and The Islanders caught him by surprise, signing Johnson to an NHL-AHL deal for the remainder of the season.

Friday morning, Johnson said, Tigers coach Scott Pellerin called him into his office and told him he would not be in the lineup for the team's game that night in Albany, N.Y. Pellerin paused, Johnson said, and told him he instead would dress for the Islanders, so he needed to go home, grab a suit and meet up with the car service that would shuttle him to Newark. During the car ride, Johnson said, he called friends and former coaches to let them know he had been promoted.

Behind the Islanders bench Friday night was assistant coach Brent Thompson, who was head coach of the Aces in 2009-10, Johnson's last season in the ECHL.

" "It couldn't have happened to a better guy,'' Thompson texted. "He has worked his whole life for the opportunity and I am glad the New York Islanders and Garth Snow made it possible for him.''

Nate Thompson of Anchorage, the Tampa Bay Lightning center and Johnson's buddy, texted shortly after his own game Friday night.

"I couldn't be more happy for J.J.,'' Thompson said. "He truly is an inspiration to every kid in the hockey world trying to make it, or even anybody just trying to achieve their goal in life.

"I think J.J. has touched everyone's lives in some way back home, and especially mine. Alaska should be proud and cheering him on today.''

Johnson has often said that he feels loved and respected by his Alaska hockey friends like Gomez and Thompson, who long ago secured spots in the NHL and kept encouraging him to chase his dream.

One of those friends is Joey Crabb of Anchorage, who has played in 179 career NHL games, including nine this season with Florida, and is currently in the AHL.

"It's hard to be any happier for a great person like him to reach the NHL,'' Crabb texted. "To battle for so many years and make it shows how mentally strong he is.''

Johnson said he hopes his story can inspire others.

"You know how we tell kids they can make their dreams come true?'' he said. "Now, I feel like I'm not full of it. I can say it to somebody and they can believe me.''

Each offseason, Johnson trains with the likes of Gomez, Thompson and Crabb, former NHLer Tim Wallace and other elite players under the guidance of Louis Mass, the Aces assistant coach who owns a training facility where the sweaters of all the Alaskans who have played in the NHL adorn the walls. The Aces won the Brabham Cup as ECHL regular-season champions with a victory Friday night in Colorado. Nearly an entire day had passed since Mass first heard Johnson was called up by the Islanders, and he was still fired up for his friend.

"Unreal,'' Mass texted. "Made my day. Still floating on air over it.''

The Islanders have already been eliminated from playoff contention and have just one regular-season game left, Sunday at Buffalo. Johnson said he was told he will be in the lineup. Either way, his debut Friday made him part of a select group.

After all those miles, and all those smiles, Justin Johnson made it.

His sweater's going up on the wall.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

Justin Johnson of Anchorage on Friday night became the 14th Alaskan to play in the NHL when he made his debut with the New York Islanders. He’s also the 10th former Alaska Aces player to make his NHL debut after playing for the ECHL club and the ninth former UAA skater to ascend to the world’s best league

Alaskans in the NHL

PlayerPositionTeam NHL debut

Ty Jones RW Chicago Blackhawks Oct. 10, 1998

Scott Parker RW Colorado Avalanche Nov. 28, 1998

Scott Gomez C New Jersey Devils Oct. 2, 1999

B.J. Young C/W Detroit Red Wings Nov. 28, 1999

Brian Swanson C Edmonton Oilers Oct. 6, 2000

Barrett Heisten LW New York Rangers Oct. 5, 2001

Ty Conklin G Edmonton Oilers Oct. 16, 2001

Jason Ryznar LW New Jersey Devils Jan. 8, 2006

Matt Carle D San Jose Sharks March 25, 2006

Nate Thompson C Boston Bruins Oct. 21, 2006

Brandon Dubinsky C New York Rangers March 8, 2007

Joey Crabb RW Atlanta Thrashers Nov. 28, 2008

Tim Wallace RW Pittsburgh Penguins Dec. 10, 2008

Justin Johnson RW New York Islanders April 11, 2014

Alaska Aces who made NHL debut after playing for Aces:

Player Position Team NHL Debut

D.J. King RW St. Louis Blues Oct. 5, 2006

Chris Minard LW Pittsburgh Penguins Jan. 21, 2008

Zack FitzGerald D Vancouver Canucks Feb. 5, 2008

Chris Beckford-Tseu G St. Louis Blues Feb. 21, 2008

Tomas Kana C/W Columbus Blue Jackets March 30, 2010

Charles Linglet LW Edmonton Oilers April 12, 2010

Ryan Reaves RW St. Louis Blues Oct. 11, 2010

Anthony Peluso RW Winnipeg Jets Feb. 12, 2013

Joni Ortio G Calgary Flames Feb. 27, 2014

Justin Johnson RW New York Islanders April 11, 2014

UAA Seawolves who have played in NHL

Player Position Team NHL Debut

Mike Peluso LW Chicago Blackhawks Dec. 28, 1989

Rob Conn RW Chicago Blackhawks Jan. 29, 1992

Jeff Batters D St. Louis Blues Jan. 31, 1993

Greg Naumenko G Anaheim Mighty Ducks March 21, 2001

Duvie Westcott D Columbus Blue Jackets March 16, 2002

Curtis Glencross LW Anaheim Mighty Ducks Jan. 13, 2007

Jay Beagle C Washington Capitals Feb. 11, 2009

Nathan Lawson G New York Islanders Dec. 17, 2010

Justin Johnson RW New York Islanders April 11, 2014


By DOYLE WOODY
dwoody@adn.com