You might be inclined to think Jack Johnson would be a little reticent about going to the Olympics. After all, the last time he wore a Team USA sweater in Vancouver, he was Public Enemy No. 1.
If you did think that, by the way, you don’t know Jack Johnson. The Los Angeles Kings defenseman feels very comfortable wearing the black hat and has no problem if the Canadian fans in Vancouver have long memories.
“As a hockey player, whenever you play somewhere, you hope that you’re not forgotten,” Johnson said. “It’s a great hockey city. It’s a great place to have an international tournament and I can’t wait to get back there.”
The last time he was there for an international tournament, Johnson became a major cause celebre after viciously elbowing Steve Downie of Canada in the final minutes of a 3-2 loss to Canada at the 2006 World Junior Championship. Needing a victory to finish at the top of their group, the Americans pulled their goalie with the game tied 2-2 and after Canada scored an empty-net goal to secure the win, Johnson nailed Downie with his elbow.
He was booed vociferously every time he touched the puck after that, but seemed to revel in the attention. In the final minute of the Americans’ loss to Finland in the bronze medal game, Johnson lifted his stick in salute to the fans as they rained boos down on him.
“It makes things more fun and interesting and you get emotionally more into it,” Johnson said. “Whenever you have a tournament like that in a big city in Canada, that’s what you get. It was great for me and I had a great experience there. I think my teammates at the time kind of got a kick out of it, too.”
And don’t think for a second Johnson has lost his edge since those days.
“I’m the same guy, and some more,” Johnson said.
The elbow on Downie came when the game was all but over, but now Johnson says and he’s smart enough to understand situations properly and react accordingly.
What might be overlooked about that tournament was the fact Johnson was very good for the Americans. He led all defensemen in scoring with six points and was named to the tournament all-star team. He did pick up 45 penalty minutes – he’s USA’s all-time WJC career leader with 59 PIM - but he also combined with St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson in a formidable tandem.
That both Johnsons are part of the American Olympic team four years later is a testament to their development as NHL players. Phil Kessel and Bobby Ryan were also on that 2006 WJC team and will play in Vancouver, while Canadian Olympian Jonathan Toews was on the Canadian junior team.
Actually, a surprising number of players from that 2006 tournament will be in Vancouver. Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Radulov and Semyon Varlamov from Russia; Nicklas Backstrom from Sweden; David Krejci and Roman Polak from the Czech Republic; Yannick Weber, Rafael Diaz and Julien Sprunger from Switzerland; Ruben Smith, Jonas Holos, Kristian Forsberg and Martin Roymark from Norway; and Oskars Bartulis, Martins Karsums, Kristaps Sotnieks, Guntis Galvins, Kaspars Daugavins and Gints Meija from Latvia will be in the 2010 Games.
In many ways, Johnson exemplifies the American 2010 team – young, talented and confident enough to believe the Americans have a chance to do something special. The U.S. team is not a clear medal favorite to be sure, but there’s something about their roster that gives you the feeling they might be able to surprise some people.
“We’re young, we’re big, we’re strong, we’re fast,” Johnson said. “I think we’re all excited to get there. I don’t think any of us in the locker room think we have to pull off a miracle like the 1980 team. We’re going there expecting to win…and if we go in under the radar, that’s absolutely fine with us.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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