DENVER – Star defenseman Jack Johnson is leaving the Michigan hockey team and plans to join the Los Angeles Kings in time for their game tomorrow night, he told The Michigan Daily in an interview yesterday 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.”
The decision ends speculation on whether the sophomore would forgo his two remaining years of NCAA eligibility and jump to the NHL.
After Michigan’s 8-5 loss to North Dakota Saturday night in the NCAA West Regional semifinals here, 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.”
When reached by phone last night, a Los Angeles Kings spokesperson declined to comment until the contract is final.
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 on its schedule.
Johnson expects to be paired on defense with Rob Blake, an All-Star defenseman and Bowling Green alum. Former Wolverine Mike Cammalleri also plays for Los Angeles.
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 having been 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’s true allegiances showed in the maize-and-blue striped tie he wore on draft day.
The Hurricanes offered multiple contracts to Johnson throughout his freshman year at Michigan. 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 his player’s decision. The coach had often told Johnson that when he was ready to leave, Berenson would drive him to the airport.
The younger Johnson said he notified Berenson of his decision a week ago.
The Wolverines will miss Johnson’s dazzling offensive abilities and the physical presence he brought to the team. In his first year, he set the all-time record for single-season penalty minutes (149) and points by a Michigan freshman defenseman (32).
As a sophomore, he set the all time record for scoring the most goals of a Michigan sophomore defenseman (16) and was named the CCHA Offensive Defenseman of the Year.
Although his Michigan career was brief, the 20-year-old still had plenty of time to become a fan favorite. And as the crowd loved Johnson, Johnson loved Michigan.
“I have no regrets about coming here, being a Wolverine,” Johnson said. “I’m still proud as hell to be one.”
– Nate Sandals and Ian Robinson contributed to this report.