Johnson brings California cool to the Gophers blue line
When Gophers hockey practice ends, defenseman Ryan Johnson will sometimes spend an extra hour or more on the ice by himself, working on his game solo like a classic Minnesota rink rat, which is odd because Johnson hails from Southern California.
MINNEAPOLIS – As long as Ryan Johnson is on the Minnesota Gophers’ roster, posting an official start and end time to the team’s home practices is an effort in folly. The junior defenseman is usually among the first ones on the ice when practice begins, to be sure. But when the other 25 or so skaters leave the ice 90 minutes later, the work is just beginning for Johnson.
All alone on 3M Arena at Mariucci’s massive ice sheet, Johnson works on his turns, shoots pucks, skates wind sprints, bounces pucks off the boards and back to himself and seemingly dozens of other solo exercises, working on tiny areas of his game that may come in handy on Friday and Saturday nights.
“He’ll stay out there for two hours. He’ll come back later in the day. He’s just a machine,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko. “He loves to tinker, he loves to work. He takes it so seriously. He’s special.”
One would imagine that being alone in the quiet of a rink with 10,000 empty seats surrounding you and no sound, save for the scrape of blades on ice and the pop of a stick hitting a puck, it would be a perfect time to ponder life. But Johnson’s focus is elsewhere.
“Honestly, I’m not even thinking,” he said. “Just stick-handling a black puck.”
Disneyland to Dinkytown
Johnson’s “don’t leave the rink until mom rings the dinner bell” habits make him sound like a classic Minnesota neighborhood rink rat, with one small difference. He is not from International Falls or Duluth East or Eden Prairie. Ryan Johnson learned to play and love the game just up from the beach and just down the freeway from Disneyland, in Irvine, California.
But the post-practice solo ice time is actually a habit he picked up while playing in South Dakota in the USHL.
“In California we’d get kicked off the ice right after (practice) because ice time is limited,” Johnson said. “When I got to Sioux Falls, I was on the ice for hours and hours, because I’d never had free ice before. I was loving it. And it kind of carried over to Minnesota … I just like being on the ice.”
It is that tireless work ethic and a penchant for creativity in his game that have spelled success for Johnson after leaving his home, more known for sunshine and surfing than for slap shots. But in some ways he was bound to be a Gopher.
State of Hockey roots
If there is anything typical about Johnson’s story, it is his roots in hockey. He is a second generation Gopher, following in the skate strides of his father Craig, who played 119 games for the Gophers and put up 135 points, winning a WCHA title in 1992 and playing for Team USA in the 1994 Winter Olympics.
Craig grew up near Como Lake in St. Paul, played in a State Tournament for Hill-Murray, and spent 10 seasons in the NHL – the bulk of them with the Los Angeles Kings. He met a Southern California girl, got married and started a family, choosing to stay on the West Coast.
“I played with the Kings for seven years and then (played) in Anaheim. We ended up finding some land and we built a house and we’ve been there ever since,” Craig Johnson said. “I actually tried to get her to move back to Minnesota, and she wasn’t on board.”
Ryan was born in 2001, and actually first tried hockey in Europe during the four years Craig spent playing in Germany and Austria after his NHL career ended.
“I first remember skating when I was three, on the practice rink for the (Dusseldorf) Metro Stars,” Johnson recalled. “That was more just for fun, then I started playing with my brother in Europe and then I played in California.”
Whenever Craig and Brittany Johnson came back to Minnesota to visit family, Craig would make sure his boys got to see the Gophers rink, including a few unofficial locker room tours and a chance to see the photos of the family patriarch on the arena concourse. When Ryan’s teams from Orange County would come to Minnesota for tournaments, Craig would rent an hour of ice time at 3M Arena at Mariucci or at Ridder Arena to give the boys a taste of college hockey in the Twin Cities.
While Ryan was winning a Clark Cup with Sioux Falls, the college interest and offers began to pour in, and with strong interest from the likes of Wisconsin, Denver and Harvard, there was no guarantee that the second generation would follow the first.
“Watching him go through the whole recruiting process, we actually thought that he was going to commit elsewhere, and at the last second he came to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to go to Minnesota,’” Craig Johnson said. “It was a good feeling. Obviously Minnesota is where I wanted him to go, but I tried not to push him. I wanted him to make his own decision.”
In two-plus seasons with the Gophers, Johnson has been an on-ice iron man, playing in every game as a freshman and so far as a junior, and only missing four games as a sophomore when he was in Canada playing for Team USA at the 2021 World Juniors, and coming back stateside with a gold medal.
After a recent win at Michigan State, Johnson chatted with the general manager of the Buffalo Sabres, who picked him in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft, and came to East Lansing to see one of their top prospects in person. In a year or two, the Sabres will likely find Johnson’s game translates well to a young team with high upside.
Quietly making noise
Johnson’s is not a flashy, high-risk high-reward game, but reflects his calm demeanor, while playing a vital role in starting his team’s offense and obstructing the other team’s route to the Gophers’ net.
“He’s extremely calm and consistent, and he’s such a strong skater,” said Gophers assistant coach Garrett Raboin, who runs the team’s defense. “His ability to break pucks out and defend with his feet are extremely high-level. If the puck does get to our goal line, he has the ability to break it out all by himself.”
All of the other Gophers praise Johnson for being a model teammate, on and off the ice. Still, after countless hours spent solo after practice, working on the nuances of his game, doing things all by himself on the rink is clearly a place where Johnson has some experience and expertise.