JAKE'S TAKE: After the Miracle: Jim Johnson's golden life with no regrets | North Oakland Sports
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JAKE’S TAKE: After the Miracle: Jim Johnson’s golden life with no regrets

| February 6, 2013 | Comments (0)

TROY — Jim Johnson went through it all.

Now the Troy (Mich.) High School Athletics Director, Johnson skated alongside Mark Johnson and Mike Eruzione. He fired slap shots at Jim Craig. He checked the men who went on to accomplish the greatest sports miracle of all time.

He played under Herb Brooks. He skated the dreaded “Herbies,” grueling wind sprints designed to condition the Americans to play with the best hockey team in the world. He took Brooks’ five-page psychological test, everything from long-term goals to family relationships to religion.

“One of his goals was, we would never be outworked and we would never be out-conditioned,” Johnson said. “He was going to make sure that we were in shape.”

Johnson, a high school Hall of Famer at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood and star hockey player at Michigan State, was in Colorado Springs for the Olympic hockey team tryouts.

Three months before the Olympics, the U. S. was down to 40 players, and Johnson was one of them. He had taken vitamins since he was in grade school, benched nearly 300 pounds in high school and hadn’t broken a bone until college.

But his body picked a bad time for a broken leg. Johnson got injured late in 1979, falling just short of the ultimate dream of competing in the Olympics.

Johnson sat at home watching the unbelievable victory in 1980. He had worked for 22 years for that moment. It would kill some people to come so close and miss.

Few people’s lives are defined by one moment, one scene, one chance in the spotlight. Up until now, Johnson has been defined by the one chance that didn’t work out. This is the story of the rest of the life that defined him.

SO CLOSE

Johnson was on the U. S. exhibition team that lost to a Russian backup team, 11-2. Russian goalie Vladimir Tretiak, the best goaltender in the world at that time, was rehabbing an injury and played in that game. Johnson scored on him.

After three hours of skating, checking and shooting with the Russians, the Americans hung out with the Soviets.

“Hockey has a way of mutual respect and admiration,” Johnson said. “After we showered and cleaned up, we were able to go out and have a beer together.”

That night, the Russians gobbled up everything Western they could get their hands on: different brand pens, Levi’s jeans, chewing gum.

There’s a small part of some athletes who can never let go of the game they love. When Johnson came home from Colorado Springs, he just moved on with his life. He had been the property of the Atlanta Flames and had been drafted by the Baltimore Orioles as a catcher, but chose to try something new.

“I wasn’t about to try to back to another shot in the NHL,” Johnson said. “When you’re hurt, you’re hurt. I had already dislocated my shoulder at Michigan State, so it’s almost like signals are being sent to you — time is time.”

After an entire childhood of hockey, Johnson went into the education field with degrees from Cranbrook and Michigan State and a teaching certificate. No whining. No complaints. No what-ifs.

“I figured I had given it a good shot, and I was kind of ready to move on,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t that I was burned out, but I took this as ‘The writing’s on the wall.’ I almost felt like it was a signal. I was at peace with it.

“I knew I had an education to fall back on, so I figured I could do that. I knew I could coach, so I tried to do that.”

RINK OF DREAMS

As a child, Johnson tried out for every team he could find, so he could play more hockey. He was certainly no stranger to the scene he encountered in Colorado Springs.

Every road trip they took, the Americans roomed with someone new. They became a family, exactly the way Brooks wanted them to. So it didn’t matter that there were too many guys competing for two few spots.

“As athletes, you know,” Johnson said. “You’re trying out for an athletic team, and you know that there’s four spots for four centers on this Olympic team. You know who the other centers are, and you can pretty well say during the drills who’s faster going down the ice, who’s got a better shot, who’s scoring, who’s hot right now, who’s a better face-off man.

“So, to hate the guy off the ice, why? You hope to be teammates and be able to get along with one another once those teams are selected. We’ve got to get on the same bus. We’re staying in the same hotel. Why carry a grudge?”

Johnson didn’t. He liked everyone on the team, even Brooks, who had a fierce and sometimes harsh desire to win. Johnson appreciated his no-nonsense, straightforward approach. Coming out of high school, Johnson nearly played for Brooks at Minnesota, but couldn’t because Minnesota only offered scholarships to Minnesotans. Since his dad paid for four years at Cranbrook, Johnson took the full scholarship to Michigan State.

He hung out with the players on the road. He saw Phil Verchota tape other players’ sticks together. He and Mark Johnson confused Brooks with the same last name. Not many people get to have that opportunity, and Johnson, who appreciated every sports moment when it came, savored it for what it was.

“That was just fun to see guys from other parts of the country,” Johnson said. “They were all coming together for one common good.”

When Johnson’s hockey-playing career was over, he was content because he had appreciated every moment of it. That’s the way his dad taught him.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

John Johnson always had his sons’ one step ahead.

“He only knew how to do things one way,” Jim Johnson said, “and that was the right way. We loved it, and never argued.”

Jim Johnson was small and so was his wife…and so were his two sons. So, he equipped the basement with an elaborate weight room, introduced his sons to vitamins and gave them a chance despite their size.

Armed with a Ph.D. and service in the U.S. Marine Corps, John was always outsmarting the competition.

“My dad was a brilliant man,” Jim Johnson said. “He would analyze things: What’s best for you? What is your goal? How are we going to achieve that goal?

“You’re small, so how are we going to be small? We’ve got to get stronger. If we’re going to get stronger, we’ve got to get faster. He analyzed things and broke it down into segments.”

It was in part because of his dad that Johnson never let his broken leg hold him down. He worked every day of his life to achieve what he did. The same way his dad never let him give up, he never let him stop appreciating the hard work he’d put in.

“You have to respect the sport,” Johnson said. “Being able to play at a high level and have the accomplishments I had, I also learned dedication and commitment and what I had to do to achieve this.”

Toughness runs in the family, and Johnson’s dad, after serving in the Marines and playing football at Notre Dame, instilled it in his sons.

He wanted the world for them, which was why he put all the energy and strategy he did into helping them succeed. But he wouldn’t let them do it without doing it the right way.

“It’s not that my dad walked into a room and said, ‘My kid wants a scholarship,’” Johnson said. “That’s not the way it works. You earn that scholarship. You earn it by conditioning, weightlifting, giving yourself a little bit of an edge, making yourself better.”

Johnson said the best piece of advice his father gave him was to set his standards high and never quit. But no one can reach those high standards on the strength of a father alone. Jim expected just as much out of himself, and never let up.

BREATHING SPORTS

Even in grade school, Johnson breathed sports. He came home quickly from school, grabbed a snack and put on his football equipment, then ran back for football practice. As soon as football ended, he’d jump in his mother’s car and change into his hockey equipment.

After hockey practice, it was back home for dinner and some homework — unless, of course, the Detroit Red Wings were on.

“I just could never seem to get enough,” Johnson said.

Instead of going to Florida for Spring Break, Johnson went down to Cincinnati for some baseball camps. Instead of hanging out over summer vacation, Johnson went up to Toronto for 10 weeks of hockey camp. His parents would come visit him often.

When he was at home, there was a rule in his house: Monday through Friday were for work, and Saturday was the only day he could go out. Sunday was a family day.

Equipped with hundreds of pounds of different weights in the basement, Johnson worked all the time. He bench-pressed almost 300 pounds by high school.

“I didn’t know one kid when I was growing up who lifted weights,” Johnson said. “Kids would come over and play and say, ‘What the heck is this? You guys are nuts!’ We knew we had to get bigger.”

His dad’s strategizing extended into Johnson’s playing schedule. He would meticulously figure out the maximum number of tryouts Johnson could play in. Why? There were only a few rinks in the area.

“Ice was very scarce. It was a commodity,” Johnson said. “When you got ice time, you would take it.”

When his dad was transferred to Minnesota, Johnson got a taste of what Minnesota hockey is like: it’s a “cult,” he said. His team won the 1970 Bantam national championship, winning a semifinal game against the Detroit team he had played for just a couple months earlier.

Johnson fell in love with Minnesota hockey for two years, but he relished the opportunity to play anywhere.

His parents would schedule the games. Johnson just played. There was no worrying about attention or fame or who was getting the most college offers. It was just hockey.

NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Johnson moved back to Michigan for high school, where he went to Cranbrook. He left as the nation’s all-time leading high school scorer with 249 career goals, 74 of them in his sophomore year.

To this day, Johnson is the only hockey player in the high school hall of fame.

When Johnson was at Cranbrook, school would close for two weeks during the holidays. But the rink was open. So Johnson called some friends from the area and they went to the rink to play “shinny,” a term for pickup hockey.

“We’d play hockey for hours,” Johnson said. “We’d sit down on the ice and eat snow for water and just say, ‘Alright, let’s play some more.’”

No referees, no coaches. Just an orange cone in the net. No checking, no fighting. Just up and down the ice.

Sports the way they were meant to be played.

“That’s what’s missing today,” Johnson said. “Everything’s organized.”

Too often people focus on winning. Too much people take for granted those hours of shinny on the outdoor rinks.

“If you’re practicing, you never come off the ice,” Johnson said. “Where do you think you’re going to gain more? As young kids, keep the kids on the ice. Let them just play. It doesn’t have to be structured. It doesn’t have to be organized. There’s nothing wrong with letting somebody experiment.”

BAD BREAKS

No one will ever know whether the broken leg took Johnson out of the Lake Placid games. But the game against the Russians, the visits to colleges, the induction into the Hall of Fame and, most importantly, the hours of shinny as a child: no one will ever take that away.

Johnson did everything he could. He ate well. He slept well. He lost weight and stayed in shape. He lifted weights. He didn’t party.

“The coping skill was easy to live with because I knew I had done everything I could,” Johnson said. “It was out of my control that I broke my leg. It was out of my control that University of Minnesota couldn’t give me a scholarship. I gave myself a chance, but those are things I can’t control. It hurt, but I can cope with it.”

Forty years after what would have broken some people, Johnson still holds a record, he’s in the Hall of Fame and he’s been the Oakland County Athletics Director of the Year. He has thousands of memories.

So he came back from Colorado Springs with no regrets.

“It’s how well we, as individuals, learn to cope with it,” Johnson said. “It’s stepping back and saying, ‘Did I do everything I could to give myself a chance?’ If I can sit back and look myself in the mirror and say I did everything I could to be successful, then what else can you say except, ‘I tried.’ You have to learn to live with that.”

So often today athletes throw away talent with academic problems or behavioral conduct.

Then there’s Jim Johnson, who never has to wonder, “What if?”

(Jake Lourim is a senior at Troy High School and a member of the S.H.P. Media Group / www.northoaklandsports.com Student Correspondence Program. He is publisher of website www.troycoltsportsupdate.com and a member of the Troy school newspaper editorial staff. He can be reached by e-mail at j.lourim@comcast.net)

 

 

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About Dan Stickradt: DAN STICKRADT | SENIOR EDITOR dan.stickradt@northoaklandsports.com View author profile.

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