September 18, 2018

Advocate For Yourself

By Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Spent four seasons with the Gophers from 2014-2018. skated in 119 games with 40 points (six goals, 34 assists). Four-year letter winner. Three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection. Won a gold medal with the U.S. at the 2013 World Junior A Challenge in Canada. Drafted 120th overall (fourth round) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

I strapped on my first skates when I was 3 or 4 years old. I would fool around on backyard ponds, nothing too crazy. It’s funny because I actually played more soccer and baseball when I was growing up. I loved baseball. The upside with baseball and hockey is I could play baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter, so it worked out. I think it was around 8th grade or even freshman year in high school when I decided to just play hockey. I think it was my calling. I watched hockey constantly on TV, and something about it just caught my attention more than baseball.

I went to Minnetonka High School and played on the JV hockey team my freshman and sophomore years and on the Varsity hockey team my junior and senior years.

After high school, I came to a crossroads in life. Where do I want to go to college? Do I want to play hockey in college? Or, should I follow in my dad’s footsteps and go to North Dakota for aviation (My dad’s a pilot for Delta)? Up until this time, I hadn’t made any major decisions when it came to hockey. Things just kind of worked out.

So, I decided to test the waters and contact a few Division 3 (D3) schools. I told them about my hockey career, hoping they would come to check me out and give me the opportunity to play at their school. I never heard back. Nothing. Silence. No email, no phone call in return.

Thankfully, there was a team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) who saw me play in a Christmas tournament my senior year. They called and offered me a tender. A tender is a contract that says you are locked into playing with an NAHL team, and you can’t talk to or try out for any other teams. I was a bit hesitant, but I eventually signed.

I played for the Aberdeen Wings in Aberdeen, S.D. I played well for my first year of juniors. We had a great team, we just ran into a few obstacles along the way that season. We went on an 18-game losing streak, and we went through three head coaches, so we didn’t make the playoffs.

In the spring, I decided to call and email Division 3 schools, again, asking them to come take a look at me. I wasn’t too keen on continuing to play for the Wings the next season, so I wanted to see what other options were out there. I had a few schools respond, saying, “We will take a look at you, if we have the time.” I knew they weren’t coming.

So, my next to-do was to contact the United States Hockey League teams (USHL). This is another juniors league, but one league up from the NAHL. I think I emailed 12 to 16 teams, and only heard back from three. They all basically said, “No,” in their own way.

I finished up the year with the Wings, and I went home for the summer. The USHL draft was in June, and I didn’t talk to one USHL team before draft day. Well, I got a pretty good bounce, because I was drafted by the Omaha Lancers in the third round. This was a huge boost in confidence for me. I went to the Lancers three-day camp in July, and I made the team.

The Fall Classic was a tournament that fell on the first two games of the USHL season. All of my buddies were telling me, “This is a great opportunity for you. All of the D1 and D3 scouts will be there as well as the NHL.” The NHL hadn’t even crossed my mind. For years leading up to this, I was focused on college. All I wanted was for a D3 school to answer my emails. And now, with my confidence high, I set a new goal. I wanted a D1 scholarship.

The first game at the classic, I played pretty well, but I didn’t hear from any schools after the game. Some of my teammates were talking to potential colleges as they got off the ice, but my end was silent. I thought to myself, “I need to step it up.”

The second game, again, I thought I played well.  I went to the locker room after the game, and that’s when my coach walked up to me. He said, “You have a lot of talk going on out there. You better move and get out of the locker room.” As I exited the locker room doors, about 10 to 15 schools were lined up, waiting to talk to me. And, you know what? They were all D1 schools.

The University of Minnesota was among the group. Growing up, I always watched the Gophers—my dad would take me to games. I still have a hat signed by the team in 2003 when they won the National Championship. I was a huge Gopher fan. I went for a campus visit, and I found myself in Don Lucia’s office. I knew they were a huge hockey program, and I wasn’t sure how much scholarship money they could give out. As I sat down, ready to talk Gopher hockey with Don Lucia, he said, “We will give you a full scholarship to play here.” I was taken aback, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Done! I committed to the U of M in October, while I was still playing for the Omaha Lancers.

I finally reached my goal and played D1 college hockey on a scholarship. What a great feeling! If that wasn’t enough, the summer before I started at the U of M, I was drafted by the LA Kings in the fourth round. A few teams had called me beforehand, but I wasn’t sure if anything would truly happen or not. I was actually sleeping when my Omaha coach called me. I thought, “Why is he calling me?” See, I thought the second through seventh rounds of the draft occurred Saturday night, not Saturday morning/mid-day, so I wasn’t expecting any calls.

“Congratulations,” he said.

“What?” I answered.

“Are you sleeping? You just got drafted by the LA Kings,” he told me.

About 10 seconds after that comment, my phone buzzed with the LA Kings on the other line.

I went to their development camps every summer, but they never gave me an offer, so I was able to stay at the U and finish out my four years of college, playing hockey there.

Even though the Kings never gave me an offer, they still had my rights as a player until August 15, 2018. At that time, I decided not to sign with them and become a free agent instead. I’m currently talking with multiple teams. My goal is to get a deal from another team, but I’m learning to trust the process, continuing to believe in myself, having confidence and advocating for what I feel is best.

What I Learned As An Athlete
My dad always said, “It’s effort and attitude. If you have both of those, you can go places.” Be a team player by pushing your teammates, and yourself, to achieve goals. You can control your effort. You might be frustrated, but don’t give up. I always showed up early to practice, worked out, stayed late on the ice and went above and beyond what I needed to do, even when I wasn’t playing as much as I thought I should. If you put in as much effort as you can and if you have a positive attitude, everything will work out.

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