DENVER, March 25 – Michigan star defenseman Jack Johnson is negotiating a contract with the Los Angeles Kings today, ending speculation of whether the sophomore would forgo his two remaining years of eligibility.

Johnson confirmed his departure in an exclusive interview with The Michigan Daily this afternoon.

“I thought I was ready for a new challenge,” Johnson said. “With all my close friends, the seniors, gone now and everything, I thought it was time for me to pretty much go for a new challenge.”

Following Michigan’s 8-5 loss to North Dakota Saturday night in the NCAA West Regional semifinals in Denver, the team flew back to Ann Arbor, but Johnson and his family stayed behind. Johnson’s agent, Pat Brisson, and Kings general manager Dean Lombardi worked out the details of the contract.

“I’ll be flying from Denver to Los Angeles,” Johnson said. “Everything’s done except for they’re negotiating bonuses.”

Johnson said he will be in the Kings’ lineup Tuesday night when they play on the road against the San Jose Sharks. Los Angeles, which is out of contention for a playoff berth, has six games remaining in its schedule.

According to his father, Johnson will return to Ann Arbor following the Kings’ season and is enrolled in spring term classes at Michigan.

“He’s only going to be gone for three weeks,” Jack Johnson, Sr. said. “He’s coming back. He’s going to get a degree from Michigan. That’s the No. 1 thing – he promised (Michigan coach Red Berenson) he will graduate.”

The Ann Arbor native came to Michigan already drafted third overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. Some analysts believed Johnson should have signed with Carolina then, but the defenseman was firm in his decision to play for the Wolverines.

The Hurricanes offered multiple contracts to Johnson throughout his first year. On Oct. 1 2006, after Johnson had rejected another offer, Carolina traded his rights and defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky to Los Angeles for forward Eric Belanger and defenseman Tim Gleason.

Johnson’s continued dedication to Michigan resulted in more criticism from hockey analysts.

“They don’t understand why a kid would turn down the NHL,” his father said. “They think everybody would cut off their right arm to play in the NHL. Yeah, Jack wants to, but he had this dream first.”

Johnson’s father also said that Berenson supported the 20-year-old’s decision. The 23-year Michigan coach had often told Johnson that when he was ready to leave, Berenson would drive him to the airport.

Johnson notified Berenson of his decision a week ago.

“I have no regrets about coming here, being a Wolverine,” Johnson said. “I’m still proud as hell to be one.”

– Ian Robinson and Nate Sandals contributed to this report.

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