The 2009 World Junior Championship didn’t start all that well for Tyler Johnson.
But it ended just fine, thank you.
Johnson, a 19-year-old from Spokane who is in his third season with the WHL’s Chiefs, played for the U.S. team that won the gold medal in Saskatoon, beating Canada 6-5 in overtime in the final.
Johnson actually got thrown out of his team’s first game — a 7-3 victory over Slovakia — with a high-sticking major and game misconduct. However, it was a case of mistaken identity.
“It was really disappointing,” he said Tuesday night, about 90 minutes before taking the ice against the Kamloops Blazers at Interior Savings Centre. “I was really looking forward to playing in that game and then to have 10 seconds of ice time . . . I stepped on the ice and went across the red line and they blew the whistle.”
The guilty part actually was Jason Zucker, a forward from the U.S. National Under-18 team. Zucker wore No. 16; Johnson was No. 10.
“I couldn’t defend myself because the referee spoke Russian,” said Johnson, who would go on to score three goals and set up two others while twice being named his team’s player of the game. “It was something that was very unfortunate but, at the same time, I thought I bounced back pretty well from it.”
Johnson certainly was able to put it behind him. In fact, following the end of the tournament, the U.S. coaching staff named him one the team’s three best players. That was quite an honour when you consider that the team’s roster included 15 players who have been drafted by NHL teams.
Johnson, who has attended NHL camps with the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes, has yet to be drafted.
“It’s strictly a size thing at this point,” one NHL scout said of the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Johnson, “because he’s a really good player.”
Johnson also wasn’t able to complete the final game in Saskatoon. Early in that game, he crashed into the end boards and suffered a bruised hip.
“I had a very big bruise on my hip and it was pretty sore,” said Johnson, who played three or four more shifts before shutting it down. “I had a week off (after the tournament) and it got a lot better.”
During the tournament, he and winger Philip McRae, the son of former NHLer Basil McRae and a regular with the OHL’s London Knights, played together a lot. The likes of Luke Walker (Portland Winterhawks), Kyle Palmieri (U of Notre Dame) and Jeremy Morin (Kitchener Rangers) rotated through the other spot on the line.
“I thought I played pretty well,” Johnson said. “I thought I played my game. The coach was able to put me out with great players. When you’re playing with guys like that, it’s pretty hard to be bad.”
Johnson, a 20-goal man and a defensively responsible centre with the Chiefs, especially enjoyed playing with Walker.
“I grew up in Spokane; he grew up in Castlegar,” Johnson said. “We played against each other in minor hockey all the time. He’s a great player. It’s tough to play against him but it was nice to be on his side for a change. He’s a great guy and I thought we became pretty good friends.”
Of course, Johnson now is something of a celebrity in his hometown. In fact, the Chiefs will celebrate Tyler Johnson Bobblehead Night on Saturday when they play host to the Kootenay Ice.
“I have had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Congratulations’,” he said. “But even in Spokane a lot of people didn’t know about the world juniors.
“The biggest reaction I had was in the Saskatoon airport. Probably hundreds of people came up to me and asked me about it and talked to me about it. That was . . . pretty cool.”
What also is pretty cool is that Johnson, whose Chiefs won the 2008 Memorial Cup, is one of two American players to have won World Junior and Memorial Cup titles. Forward Dan Fritsche played for the U.S. team that won the 2004 WJC by beating Canada 4-3 in Helsinki, Finland. He also played for London, which won the 2005 Memorial Cup.
Johnson feels his Chiefs have all the pieces to do it again, too.
“We just need to put everything together,” he said. “Our biggest problem is . . . work ethic and consistency. I think as we get along here people are going to start realizing what we need to do to win games. Eventually everyone will realize that we are able to be that team.”
As for the gold medal, he won in Saskatoon . . . well, he is able to look at it almost every night.
“It’s at my house, hanging up in my bedroom,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to have and it’s something I’ll always remember.
“But I really want another Memorial Cup.”