Some 10 years ago, a young Jack Johnson excitedly wore his No. 6 Harold Schock Michigan jersey to collect autographs at Michigan’s annual Blue and White Scrimmage. On Saturday, that same jersey was out on the ice, but this time Johnson was a freshman defenseman signing the autographs while his 7-year-old brother Kenny collected them.
Perhaps the collection of signatures was an early sign of Johnson’s love for Michigan hockey. The jersey has dozens of autographs from the likes of Schock, Mike Legg and Jason Botterill – Johnson’s heroes growing up.
Saturday night was Johnson’s dream come true – he had been waiting for his debut in Maize and Blue since his parents started bringing him to Yost Ice Arena and Michigan Stadium as a toddler.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” Johnson said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this, and everyone has made me feel right at home.”
Money can’t buy his love
Despite his deep-seated love for Michigan sports, Johnson has faced an immense amount of pressure to give up his life-long dream of playing at Yost. Johnson was the third overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, guaranteeing him a lucrative offer from the Carolina Hurricanes. But despite the fame and money that a pro-hockey contract would bring, he opted to stay in Ann Arbor to experience the Michigan tradition.
“Jack is an old-fashioned traditionalist,” Johnson’s father, also Jack, said. “He believes in the Yankee pinstripes, the Old English D. Jack will take Yost over any arena in America. When it comes to the Maize and Blue and ‘The Victors’ – that’s Jack.”
Johnson’s parents attribute this choice not only to Johnson’s strong allegiance to Michigan, but also to the fact that their family has always been a big proponent of the collegiate experience. His father won a national championship playing defense for the 1973 Wisconsin Badgers and also played at Michigan State. His mother graduated from the Michigan, and her father, Ken Manuel, played football, basketball and baseball for Michigan in the 1930s.
So when it came to the choice between college hockey and major junior hockey, it was an easy decision for Johnson and his family. But once the NHL started knocking, Michigan fans began to worry about whether Johnson would still make it to Ann Arbor.
After the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim took Bobby Ryan, the Hurricanes were thrilled to select Johnson with the third pick. General Manager Jim Rutherford said he believes Johnson is the perfect fit for their organization.
“Jack is a high-skill defenseman that can really play in all aspects of the game,” Rutherford said. “From the Hurricanes’ point-of-view he’s an ideal fit. We needed some younger players to balance out the guys we have right now.”
But even on draft day, Johnson donned a blue and yellow tie. There was never any doubt in his mind that coming to Michigan was the right thing for him.
“My plan right now is that I’m playing at the University of Michigan and I don’t have any other plans,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I didn’t say a word to them at all after the draft. They’ve been talking to my parents and other people, but they knew I was planning to come here all along.”
For the time being, Rutherford says the organization hopes that he will continue to develop under Michigan coach Red Berenson’s tutelage.
“We don’t have a timeline,” Rutherford said. “We can’t predict his development, but we will follow along with his play at Michigan. As time goes along, we can make a decision about his future.”
Rutherford said the Hurricanes will continually monitor his development in Ann Arbor and they hope to see him play 10 to 12 times this season. Johnson is pleased that the Hurricanes have been so patient with his decision to play at Michigan.
“It’s great for me and says a lot about the Carolina Hurricanes,” Johnson said. “I will make my decision and do what’s best for me. And I think the best thing for me is to be here at Michigan, and it’s great that they understand that.”
The Road to Yost
Michigan fans are used to seeing their star players drafted by NHL teams, but Johnson was the highest draft pick in Michigan history before he even played a collegiate game.
Prior to his arrival at Michigan, Johnson developed quite a name for himself while playing with some elite company in the United States National Team Development Program and at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School in Faribault, Minn.
Johnson led the USNTDP under-18 team’s defensemen in scoring last year, notching 43 points (14 goals and 29 assists) while playing 48 games against top-notch competition, including college teams such as Michigan. The great coaching and elite teammates that Johnson worked with in the program helped him further develop. But according to Michigan’s junior defenseman Matt Hunwick