ECHL Communications Intern
The list of University of Wisconsin hockey players to go on to the professional ranks is as lengthy as it is impressive, spanning from Chris Chelios and Brian Rafalski to Joe Pavelski and Dany Heatley. The school has been a feeder to the NHL, with an astonishing number of players able to make the jump from the Badgers to the pros. Last season, Wisconsin boasted 20 players on rosters around the NHL – the second most among all college teams.
Wheeling Nailers’ forward Patrick Johnson hopes to follow those success stories, especially after seeing collegiate teammates of his get immediate playing time in the NHL. After Johnson’s junior season at Wisconsin, Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh left school early, and finished their first professional season as key members of the New York Rangers. After this past year, Johnson’s senior season, Jake Gardiner and Craig Smith left for the pros, making the opening day rosters of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Nashville Predators respectively.
Johnson stayed in school and played all four seasons at Wisconsin, including an appearance in the 2010 National Championship game, where the team lost to Boston College. Wisconsin’s head coach is Mike Eaves, who spent seven seasons in the NHL, and was an assistant coach for three NHL squads, before taking over the reigns for Wisconsin. Johnson credits his mentality and teaching for his development into a professional hockey player.
“The way Coach Eaves runs the program, it is an NHL mindset,” Johnson explained. “You practice the way the pros do it. And when you’re playing with good players you’re always going to get better. Playing to the highest level you can play along with guys like (current Red Wings defenseman) Brendan Smith, (current Coyotes forward) Kyle Turris, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan, it just makes you a better hockey player by practicing with them every day. You see how those skills translate to the NHL, and you’re striving to be there as well.”
A former Montreal Canadians draft pick, Johnson was born and bred in a hockey family. His dad, Mark Johnson, starred on the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, scoring a crucial goal in the famous victory over the Soviet Union. Johnson now coaches the women’s hockey team at Wisconsin, who are defending National Champions. His grandfather, “Badger” Bob Johnson is a Hockey Hall of Famer who coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup Championship in 1991.
“My last name is very special to me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Johnson said. “You hear about it from people a lot, especially with my grandfather starting the Wisconsin program, and then my dad being a big part of that team in 1980. Keeping the tradition alive is fun for me. Playing in Wisconsin was awesome because I got to wear my dad’s number that he wore. Having a father and grandfather like that who are both so respected in the hockey world is a fun thing to have.”
Johnson’s professional hockey journey begins in the ECHL, where he is starting the season with Wheeling. After exploring options overseas, Johnson earned a tryout with the Adirondack Phantoms in the AHL before beginning the season with the Nailers. In his first weekend in the ECHL, Johnson made an immediate contribution, tallying his first professional goal, and adding two assists in two Nailers victories.
“The adjustment, hockey wise, wasn’t too bad,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of skilled players, but it’s similar to the college game, especially at a high level like Wisconsin. For me every practice was intense, especially playing with people that are in the NHL right now. Here it’s a new program, new coach, new system. The first couple practices I was trying to learn what the coach wanted, which was different than what I had gotten comfortable with for my last four years. I’m better off now than on day one, but it’s a learning process.”
There are five former Wisconsin players skating in the ECHL this season: Johnson, Gwinnett’s Andy Brandt, Trenton’s Andy Bohmbach, Utah’s Podge Turnbull, and South Carolina’s Sean Dolan. Dolan, Wisconsin’s captain last season and Johnson’s linemate, was playing opposite Johnson when he scored his first professional goal.
“It was kind of weird,” Johnson remarked, “because there I was in my second game and there was Sean Dolan. We were together for four years like brothers, and it was funny because you are used lining up next to him on a faceoff and you are on the other side now. It’s different. It’s a whole new ballgame now.”
For now, Johnson will have to get used to the rigors of being a professional player. With a strong hockey background, he clearly has built a foundation for success. All that follows is a strong mindset and the execution of his plan.
“I’m just trying to play the best hockey I can,” Johnson said. “Play at a high skill level and hopefully move up, slowly but surely. Every kid’s dream is to play in the NHL. For me, it’s just one step at a time. You have to start somewhere, and for me it starts here.”