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Rookie Johnson enjoying strong USHL season

11/07/2013, 5:45pm MST
By Paul D. Bowker - Special to

Grow up in Minnetonka, Minn., and you grow up with hockey.

University of Minnesota recruit Steven Johnson played high school hockey with Jack Ramsey, the son of 1980 Olympic gold medalist hockey player and four-time NHL All-Star Mike Ramsey. A long line of Minnetonka High School famous hockey alums includes Jake Gardiner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Johnson can quickly recite Toronto’s selection of Gardiner in the 2008 NHL Draft. In Minnetonka, it’s common knowledge: first round, 17th pick.

“It definitely has its fair share of great athletes,” Johnson says of Minnetonka, a western suburb of Minneapolis. “I think it’s real good for the town. Everybody looks up to everyone else. It’s a great place to come from.”

And now you can add Johnson to the who’s-who-in-Minnetonka list. The defenseman is playing for the U.S. Junior Select Team at the World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. In early October he accepted a hockey scholarship at the University of Minnesota, where he will begin school in fall 2014. And he is one of the leading players on Omaha’s United States Hockey League team as a 19-year-old rookie.

“He’s been really, really good for us all year,” said Brian Kaufman, coach for the Omaha Lancers and a former college hockey star at Miami University. “He’s just such a good defenseman in the offensive and defensive zone. … He can play in any situation. He runs our power plays, [he is] on our penalty kill. He plays in every situation.”

The combination of Johnson and Tucker Poolman on defense, with Cole Bruns or Hayden Hawkey in goal, has helped send the Lancers to first place in the Western Conference of the USHL. The Lancers won 10 of their first 13 games and Bruns posted five shutouts.

“Most of the year he’s been paired with Tucker Poolman as our top D pair,“ Kaufman said. “They’ve done an unbelievable job. We’ve matched them up a lot of times against other teams’ best [forward] lines.”

The coaches and scouts for Team USA recognized Johnson’s talents by naming him to the junior select team. He is on temporary leave from the Lancers while Team USA tries to win a gold medal at the World Junior A Challenge.

“Any time you get to represent Team USA is quite the honor,” Johnson said. “The guys are great and the coaches are great. It’s going to be a great experience.”

Johnson’s homeland pride is built up even more by the fact that seven other Minnesotans are on the junior select team. While Johnson racks up impressive numbers (a plus/minus ration of plus-10 so far) in Omaha, he is a true Minnesotan who grew up with hockey. Specifically, University of Minnesota Gophers hockey. Soon, he’ll play for the Gophers in an arena that is less than 20 miles from his Minnetonka home.

“Every Minnesota kid grows up and watches the Gophers,” he said. “To have an opportunity to put that ‘M’ on my chest and represent the Gophers is quite an honor. So I’m really excited.”

Joining him in Minneapolis as a freshman in 2014 will be good friend Jack Ramsey.

“I go over to his house all the time and his basement is loaded with ‘Miracle on Ice’ stuff, Olympics stuff,” Johnson said. “I got to see the gold medal. It’s pretty awesome. It’s cool to have someone of that stature be so close and see everything they do.”

While preparing for his first USHL season in Omaha, Johnson spent part of the summer working out with Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy, a native of nearby Eden Prairie, Minn. Johnson says he has learned by watching the speed and quickness shown by Leddy.

“I just try to model my game after him,” Johnson said. “Just watch him and see what he does in certain situations, and go from there.”

At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Johnson hopes to get bigger as he approaches his college years and a possible run at a pro career in the National Hockey League. He’ll be eligible for the NHL Entry Draft in 2014.

“Just get bigger and stronger and faster,” Johnson said.

“That’s certainly a possibility,” Kaufman said of the NHL. “It’s not far fetched. As an undersized defenseman, you know, it’s tough. There’s a lot of undersized defensemen that never make it to the NHL. … He’ll get better and better and provided the opportunity is there, he certainly could. Getting stronger is going to be huge for him.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Photo by Deb Hestness, courtesy Omaha Lancers

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