How Blackhawks prospect Reese Johnson overcame multiple surgeries to get his NHL chance
By Scott Powers Jul 14, 2019
Reese Johnson was back on the ice, brimming with hope for his hockey future.
Six months of draining rehab after surgery to repair a torn left labrum — stemming from a fight to stick up for his brother in a WHL game — had led him to lose most of his 17-year-old season.
But he took solace in knowing he still had enough time to impress NHL teams. His dream of being drafted was still possible. He was excited to get going with the Red Deer Rebels for the 2016-17 season.
And then it happened again.
In his fifth preseason game, Johnson took a hit, fell on his other shoulder and suffered the same injury. This time, he fully understood what had happened.
“The second one, I knew right way, I knew the feeling,” Johnson, a recent Blackhawks signee, said. “I got up and basically started screaming.”
It hit him emotionally more than physically in the moment. He knew exactly what was ahead of him. The next six months were going to be awful — even worse than what he’d already endured.
The psychological impact of the second injury made it even harder. He had lost two years of hockey development. He wasn’t going to be drafted. His NHL future was in doubt. Just looking at his own physical appearance in the mirror weeks after the surgery was crushing. He had built himself back up, all for nothing.
“(The lowest point is) probably during the recovery just because when I first got out of the sling you basically lose all your muscle, especially up top,” Johnson said. “You can do a few leg exercises. I think I lost 12 pounds the first time and just over 10 the second surgery. The first time it wasn’t easy to build back muscle. The second time was even harder. That was the toughest part just seeing your body like that after working so hard for a year after my first one and knowing that I had to that basically again.”
At those low points, Johnson relied on family and teammates to lift his spirits. Rebels coach Brent Sutter helped get Johnson back on track.
“It’s never too late, you got to keep going, do everything possible,” Sutter said recently of his advice to Johnson. “You have to stay the course. He did. He never wavered. It’s always easy to give up or quit or look for another out or think the grass is greener on other side of the fence. Well, it’s not. He stayed the course and kept going.”
Johnson put in the work off the ice. And when he put on his skates, grabbed a stick and touched a puck for the first time, it was a humbling experience. Hockey all of a sudden felt foreign to him. If he really wanted to play in the NHL, it was going to be an uphill climb.
Johnson had to take baby steps to feel comfortable again on the ice. He had to strengthen his shoulders and rebuild his range of motion. To this day, he still does his shoulder exercise every day and doesn’t have the complete range of motion he once had.
Johnson came back for three games in the 2016-17 WHL playoffs. He put in more work in the offseason and was ready to go for the 2017-18 season, playing in 72 games.
Entering his 20-year-old season, Johnson was overflowing with excitement again. He had been named captain. His game had come back to him. He had another shot at catching the attention of NHL teams as an over-age player. His teammate Brandon Hagel signing with the Chicago Blackhawks as a 20-year-old early in the year gave him hope.
“I knew there was still a chance,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of guys who sign as a free agent when they’re 20. I thought about it, but I was just focusing on having a good year. Being made a captain, I wanted to help the young guys and be a good leader for the team. I knew it was pretty special when Brent made me captain. I was happy about that. I was looking to have fun, just enjoy my last year of junior for sure.”
The season couldn’t have gone much better for Johnson. Off the ice, he had a unifying effect in the dressing room. He’s been described as a person everyone likes, and everyone who was contacted for this story jumped to talk about him. Cam Moon, who does media relations and broadcasting for the Rebels, said, “The kid’s an absolute beauty.”
On the ice, Johnson was the ultimate role player. He won 65 percent of his faceoffs. He contributed his share of points – 53 points in 67 games – but his influence was more taking key faceoffs, stepping up in the defensive zone and winning loose pucks.
“He’s always trying to be one of the hardest working players on the ice,” Hagel said. “He’ll do anything to get the win. He might not be putting up the points, but he’s one of those guys you can count on in the last minute of the game to win an important faceoff and get done the job that needs to be done.”
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and his amateur scouting staff were drawn to that skillset. As much as they’re mostly looking for offensive difference-makers, they also know they need some players who can do those little things. If you look at the Blackhawks’ NHL roster the past few years, they haven’t possessed many centers besides Jonathan Toews who could be counted on to win important defensive draws.
That’s ultimately why the Blackhawks returned to Red Deer after signing Hagel and offered Johnson an entry-level contract. He signed with the Blackhawks in March.
“He’s a right-handed center, that’s the top faceoff guy in the Western League,” Bowman said of Johnson in the spring. “You look at our team here, they’re all lefties, it’s nice to have some righties to balance. We like his competitiveness. He’s more of a role player. He scored more this year, but he projects to be more of a third-, fourth-type center.
“I just love his style of play and his intensity, his competitiveness. He’s a guy who embraces his role. Some guys are great scorers in junior and then they got to learn to be a third- or fourth-liner and they don’t always buy into it. That’s what he is right now. He’s really good at it. And that’s what he wants to be. He’s not got 110 points in Red Deer expecting that he’s going to change his game and all of a sudden he’s on the fourth line in Rockford. He knows like, ‘That’s my ticket to the NHL is I’m going to be really good at that.’ When I talk to him, like he has a great (idea of) what he is and he’s going to be the best at that type of player and it’s important.”
As Sutter said, there’s nothing wrong in being a bottom-6 player.
“That’s what he’s probably going to be, but he’s very good at what he does,” Sutter said. “Bottom-6 roles are just as important as top-6 roles, just in different ways. Bottom-6 guys don’t get the credit. They’re usually doing the grunt of the work. They’re having to kill penalties, play tough minutes. The faceoff guys start in their own zone, play against other teams’ top lines. It’s different roles, but just as important to have success. It takes all kinds to be successful.”
Johnson understands that and has accepted and embraced his role. He thrives on winning faceoffs. He loves being trusted in big situations. He knows killing penalties can be just as vital as scoring on the power play.
“I think every kid would like to be a skilled guy and score the goals, but I know that’s not my role,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t in junior and especially moving forward. Obviously it would be nice to provide some of that scoring and stuff like that, but I see myself as a bottom-6 centerman who can play any area of the ice, good defensively, obviously taking draws. Taking pride in the little things, I think is what made me successful this year.”
The Athletic’s Corey Pronman described Johnson as someone who has a chance to play in the NHL. Pronman thought Johnson had specific tools, such as his faceoff ability, to be an NHL player.
Johnson got a taste of pro hockey by ending last season with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. IceHogs coach Derek King read Johnson’s scouting report like he does with all players. Some players match their report more than others. King found Johnson’s to be true.
“Obviously he’s a great faceoff player,” King said. “You wonder, everybody talks, you get the little scouting report on these kids. Coming in, everybody tells you he’s great on the draws and he’s a great team guy and leader on the bench, vocal. You’re like, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before. And then he came in our league, in the AHL, and was winning draws left and right. He was our best faceoff guy. It’s true, on the bench, he’s talkative. It was like he had already been there for a couple of years the way he was talking. I just like everything about his game. He just works. You can tell he’s been coached by one of the Sutters because that’s the way they play. They’re consistently going and just non-stop.”
Johnson isn’t planning to stop either. He appreciates how far he’s had to come to realize his dream of an NHL contract, but he’s nowhere near content.
Johnson also has perspective of what he went through. There’s no way he would have said it at the time, but he now sees how overcoming those obstacles has made him better off for the future.
“It’s been a long road, but my career is just starting,” Johnson said. “The real work is just starting. There’s some bumps along the road, but I think it’s made me the player I am today. I don’t know if I’d change anything honestly going through the injuries and stuff. I think that made me a stronger player for sure. Just being able to overcome the adversity, I think that’s a huge thing. Moving onto the next level, it’s not going to get any easier. I’m pretty fortunate. I can’t thank the people along the way enough.”
(Top photo: Rob Wallator / Red Deer Rebels)
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