BY MARK GIANNOTTO
Daily Sports Writer
Published January 17, 2006
The date was July 30, 2005.
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The setting was the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, Ontario.
The event was the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Like any sports draft, there were prognosticators projecting which player each team would select. And there were the naysayers who questioned the selections made by certain teams. But it's the uncertainty surrounding the future of an 18-year-old kid that makes a draft so interesting. No one is sure who will become the next great hockey star. People were even questioning whether the league would rebound from the one-year hiatus caused by the labor lockout.
But amidst all of the doubt, there were two friends who ignored all the hype and stuck together in their quest for hockey success.
Two of a Kind
Michigan freshman Jack Johnson and Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Sidney Crosby first met in the fall of 2002, when they began their sophomore year at Shattuck-St. Mary's School, a small private school in Fairbault, Minnesota.
The two aspiring hockey players were the lone underclassmen to make the Shattuck prep team. Johnson had starred on Shattuck's bantam team the previous year, collecting 35 goals and 65 assists en route to a 100-point season. Crosby came in as a player with a reputation well beyond his years. Many scouts were already anointing him the next great hockey star.
As the youngest and most talented players on the team, Johnson and Crosby quickly bonded on the ice and catapulted the team to new levels of success. The dominance of the two 16-year-olds attracted national attention to their team and a small Minnesota town.
"Sidney was so dynamic," said Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers. "I've never seen a sophomore forward like Crosby - ever. And Jack as a sophomore defenseman in high school, I've never seen anyone like him either. Even at that time, they were exceptional. I think people went to Shattuck to watch those two play. The attraction was that you got to see two of the next potential (NHL) superstars."
Both were able to ignore the extraordinary amount of attention and lead Shattuck to the 2003 USA Hockey Tier I Midget National Championship. Crosby ended the season with an unbelievable 162 points (72 goals, 90 assists), and Johnson ended the season with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists), establishing himself as one of the most feared defenders in prep hockey.
The increased notoriety had no effect on the chemistry of the two sophomore superstars. Instead, their success only made them that much closer. The bond they created transferred onto the ice and became apparent to anyone watching their games.
"We had a chance to go see them at a tournament in Marquette because we were playing Northern Michigan at the time," said Michigan assistant coach Mel Pearson. "You could tell by the way they interacted with each other and their mannerisms on the ice that they were not only special players but good friends.
"On the ice at that tournament, the local team had assigned two kids to shadow Sidney and take Sidney off his game. He played through it and you could tell he was one of the best players. And that's how you could tell Jack was one of his buddies, because every time there was a skirmish, Jack was right there to make sure he was helping Sidney out."
Michigan fans have become accustomed to such actions by the freshman defenseman. Johnson has amassed 91 penalty minutes in just 21 games this season, and has served notice that nobody will get away with pushing around the Wolverines' freshmen-laden squad. Johnson's days as an enforcer on the ice began during his season playing with Crosby.
"Prior to (the 2002-2003 season) I was one of the smaller guys on the team," Johnson said. "I couldn't really check the other guys, because they were usually bigger than I was. He was the first time I kept an eye on someone, and because we were such close friends I didn't want anyone to give him a cheap shot or anything. I enjoyed doing it."
Crosby and Johnson competed against each other in practice everyday. Going against a player of similar talent helped to improve each player's skills. Michigan junior goalie Mike Mayhew, who was a senior on that 2002-03 Shattuck team, saw Jack and Sidney go at it all the time.
"Sidney saw how tough Jack plays and that forced Sidney to realize that he was going to be playing against players who are that tough at the next level," Mayhew said. "And I think Jack realized that he is going to be playing against guys as skilled as Sidney and as strong as Sidney."
Dozen's of Mom's Cookies
On and off the ice, Crosby and Johnson did not appear to have much in common. Crosby is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and was boarding at Shattuck-St.Mary's during the school year. Johnson is an American, born in Indianapolis, who lived in the Fairbault, Minn. with his family at the time. Crosby is a dynamic forward who would rather avoid physical play so he can create in open spaces. Johnson is a defenseman who can put points on the board, but also serves as a physical presence in his own zone. In interviews, Crosby is very soft-spoken and chooses his words carefully. Johnson is straightforward and outspoken.
But their different backgrounds only brought them closer together. Because of Shattuck-St. Mary's close proximity to the Johnson house, Crosby became a frequent visitor. The Johnsons welcomed him into their home because they knew that the adjustment to a new school was tough, and that Crosby's friendship meant a lot to their eldest son. The two teenagers created memories that are still vivid in the minds of the Johnsons.
"Sidney used to come over, and Mrs. Johnson made I don't know how many dozens of cookies for him," said Johnson's father, Jack Sr.. "But then all of a sudden, he would be on his hands and knees playing mini-stick hockey with our 7-year-old Kenny. And next thing you know, Sidney and Jack are on the floor playing each other in mini-stick hockey."
Ask Crosby about his memories from Shattuck, and he doesn't even mention hockey. His favorite moment with Jack occurred on the baseball diamond, not a sheet of ice.
"Jack was a pitcher for our high school team," Crosby said with a grin on his face in Chicago last week. "And in one game, the other team's pitcher threw a pitch that came real close to my head. Then the next pitch actually hit me. The next batter was Jack and when the kid threw another pitch that was really far inside, Jack charged the mound and started a huge brawl between both teams."
The budding superstars supported each other in any endeavor. The friendship that grew from shared talent on the ice had blossomed into a bond that could not be broken.
Friend or Foe
For Crosby and Johnson, their sophomore year at Shattuck would be their last year playing together on the same team. Each moved on to other teams and programs after their triumphant season.
Crosby went to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and played two seasons for Rimouski. During the 2003-04 campaign, he recorded 135 points (54 goals, 81 assists) in 59 games and led the league in scoring. He followed that with one of the greatest seasons by a junior hockey player in Canadian history. During the 2004-05 season, Crosby had 168 points (66 goals, 102 assists). Retired hockey legend and current Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky is the only player to amass more points in one season during major junior league competition. Gretzky had 182 points during the 1977-78 campaign.
Meanwhile, Johnson went on to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. On a team with the best 17- and 18-year-old hockey players in the country, he led all defensemen in points and penalty minutes.
Even though Johnson and Crosby were apart on the ice, their off-the-ice friendship still survived. Different uniforms were not going to tarnish the special moments they had at Shattuck together.
"It's always fun when you go separate ways in hockey and in life to keep in touch with your friends," Crosby said. "(Jack) is obviously a guy that I have always stayed in touch with."
During the summer of that 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Crosby and Johnson trained together. Johnson went to Nova Scotia and lived with the Crosby family for a week. The two woke up early to work out before playing street hockey or swimming in the afternoon. But it wasn't all fun and games for the two. They were preparing for a draft in which they were both highly rated.
"We are both pretty competitive, so we go pretty hard against ourselves," Crosby said. "But we both try to make each other better. There were times where we'd be mad at each other one minute and then we're best friends the next minute."
When that fateful weekend came in July and both Crosby and Johnson were in Ottawa for the draft, they roomed together. Going into the weekend, Crosby was the clear-cut No. 1 pick. The Penguins had already made it known that Sidney was their guy. Jack's fate was less clear. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks possessed the No. 2 pick, but they had not decided whether they wanted to select a forward or a defenseman. Heading into the draft weekend, Jack was rated as the top defenseman available.
During their training in the summer and the night before in their hotel room, Sidney and Jack talked about what it would be like to go back-to-back at the top of the draft. But it was all for naught. The Mighty Ducks opted for forward Bobby Ryan. The Carolina Hurricanes then grabbed Jack with the No. 3 pick.
"It was all dependent on what a team wanted - a forward or a defenseman," Johnson said. "We knew anything could happen, so we weren't really worried about it."
Just like after their successful year at Shattuck-St. Mary's, Sidney and Jack went their separate ways after the draft. Sidney went right to the NHL, where he has become a star for the Penguins. Through 45 games, the dynamic forward has posted 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) and is a leading contender for NHL Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, Jack decided to delay his NHL career to play for Michigan. Through 21 games, Johnson has 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists), tying him for the lead in points among CCHA defensemen. Considering their backgrounds, each player's decisions make sense.
"Jack grew up with his goal to play college hockey at Michigan," Jack Sr. said. "And Sidney's goal was to make it to the NHL as fast as he could. Sidney and most Canadians are more inclined to do junior hockey than thinking of college hockey."
But through all the different towns, schools and teams one thing has remained constant for Crosby and Johnson: their friendship. The two talk on the phone at least once a week and try to see each other whenever their schedules allow it. When the Penguins played the Detroit Red Wings earlier this season, Jack went to visit Sidney.
"The night before the game I went out to dinner with him," Johnson said. "He actually treated me to dinner, thank God. We just hung out and talked about what life was like for us now. He's still the same kid he was back in 10th grade. He hasn't changed anything. Watching him play was pretty neat, thinking that two or three years ago, I was playing high school hockey with him."
The success Sidney is having at the professional level has never made Jack question his decision to come to Michigan. It appears that Johnson is firmly entrenched as a Wolverine defenseman for at least the next few years. Instead of thinking about an early jump to the NHL, Jack is just happy for his friend.
"I know that we are two different players who have developed at two different rates, and obviously, he has developed more quickly," Johnson said. "And I'm in no rush to make the next step to the NHL. We respect each other's decisions, and I don't think it has affected our friendship at all. It's been fun keeping track of all he's doing."