Avalanche’s Erik Johnson knows he better ‘make it count’ after years of pain, sacrifices

DENVER — From afar, there might not be a bigger Colorado Avalanche fan right now than Cody McLeod.

McLeod spent the first 10 seasons of his 12-year NHL career in an Avs sweater, so he’s cheering on ex-teammates like Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. But the only guy he really stands for is Erik Johnson, who spent 12 years in Colorado, weathered the ups and downs of season wins and downright miserable seasons, and especially the rigors of a long list of injuries that endured with Johnson’s last year Question culminated as to whether he would never set foot on an NHL rink again.

For seven of his years in Colorado, McLeod witnessed the sacrifice Johnson, a tough, physical, superbly skating, right-shooting fullback, made on the ice and during his constant trips in and out of the coaching room.

“Concussions, knees, shoulders. He had it all,” said McLeod, who last captained the Iowa Wild in his third and likely last professional hockey season. “This is a very ambitious guy and he’s had a lot of work to do to get back in the lineup throughout his career and he’s really had a hell of a year this year. It’s good to see because there have been some tough years in Colorado, not only because of the injuries for Erik, but also some very tough seasons.”

Johnson, 34, the longest-serving Denver athlete with 900 regular-season and playoff games under his belt, has 200 regular-season games and 22 playoff games (including the combined 2018 and 2021 playoffs) in his Avs career. missed injury, illness or suspension. That doesn’t include the several games he missed during his tenure with the St. Louis Blues, including a torn ACL and MCL for the No. 1 in 2006 following an offseason golf cart accident.

But it was the adversity Johnson faced last year that was by far the hardest, and those adversities he overcame last year make the chance of winning a Stanley Cup in the next week or so worthy of him ultimate team player all the sweeter.

On January 30, 2021, in his fourth game of the season, Johnson was checked harshly by Minnesota Wild left wing Jordan Greenway. Johnson landed hard on the ice, the left side of his face taking the brunt of the punch.

Johnson suffered a concussion, his season was over and there were many dark days during his recovery.

“The goal was okay. I just landed right on my face,” Johnson said. “It just never really got better. … It just wasn’t much fun going through it all. Once I felt normal, the hockey part came back. That was great. It wasn’t like a bottom, but it was just a bad feeling throughout the process.”

The misery of the last year has given Johnson a lot to think about lately.

“It was quite a 180,” he said.

Johnson and the Avs missed the playoffs in six of his first seven years, and tough times began immediately. Johnson came from St. Louis with the Avs amid a 10-game losing streak. They finally won a game, then lost another 10 straight during a 68-point season, which at least earned them Landeskog, now their captain, the No. 2 draft in 2011. In 2013, the Avs finished 29th in the NHL, but the Avs won the lottery and took home superstar MacKinnon. In 2017, the Avs had a humbling 48-point season. The Avs then “lost” the lottery, slipping from what should have been No. 1 to No. 4, and their consolation prize for that “bad luck” was the draft… Cale Makar.

It’s amazing how far the Avs have come since a 2016-17 season in which Johnson said, “Some guys wanted out, some wanted a fresh start and that was their very right. But we all wanted to stick together and try to make it happen. It’s a very special feeling because we’ve really put a lot of work into it and you want to see how this work bears fruit.

“…Some injuries and things that happened along the way and you never know if that opportunity will come along. I just soak it all up and try to embrace the moment and just have a lot of fun. You just never know when that opportunity will come. It was 900 games, 15 years.”

When Arturri Lehkonen scored that overtime win to beat the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals, it was Johnson who was most touched by the win. He spoke about his turbulent journey after the game and was almost in tears.

Born and raised in Minnesota, he has made Colorado his adopted home. He’s an Av through and through, even waiving his no-move clause in last year’s expansion draft to ensure the Avs can protect Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard.

“I’ve been here a long time,” Johnson said. “This is where I live now. I will always live there.”

The Avs lead 1-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of Saturday night’s best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals. Johnson calls the Avs a “dial-in, confident, hungry group.”

They’re rolling into the playoffs with a 13-2 record and Johnson, who stood out in the playoffs alongside his young partner Bowen Byram, knows better than anyone that the time has come and the Avs must seize this opportunity.

“I think the guys’ heads are in the right places,” he said. “Maybe you appreciate it a little bit more as an older player because it took me and a few others a lot longer to get that chance and as a younger player – not that it would be easy, but you might think, ‘OK, that will happen again.’

“But I think you have to really appreciate the moment. It’s not easy to come here and you don’t know if you’ll come back, so I think that’s exactly the attitude we need to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s rare. It’s tough, even though Tampa has shown they can do it three years in a row. Just embrace the moment, accept the challenge and you might just jump. Make it count.”

Should the Avs win the Stanley Cup, there has been much talk of which player Landeskog would captain as captain and give the trophy to the runners-up.

In a pre-series survey by the athlete 37.2 percent of ice hockey authors guessed MacKinnon. This is also the favorite of Vegas betting odds. But 27.9 percent of our writers chose Johnson.

It makes sense. He is the longest-serving Avalanche player, having endured all the losses, heartaches and injuries, and is close friends with Landeskog.

“It’s definitely something special,” Landeskog said of sharing the experience with Johnson. “He’s been with me since my first training camp. He was my first roommate on the street. And now we’re sitting here 11 years later and we’re in the final. Obviously it’s very special. I mean, I’d probably be lying if I told you I thought we’d be here one day during the ’16-17 season. That was especially tough and that was the lowest point you can get when you’re playing in the NHL.”

Johnson has one year left on his contract, which will pay him $6 million. It expires just in time for MacKinnon to get a new contract. So Johnson is realistic that while he’s currently the longest-serving Denver athlete, he says with a wink, “Gabe will probably overtake me here in the near future.”

Regardless of whether Johnson is presented with the trophy second, third or last, as long as he can snatch that precious trophy, you know Johnson doesn’t care one iota.

He would pull it over his head as if it weighed as much as a feather.

Johnson admits there would be a gap in his career if he doesn’t win the trophy. So if he lived to see that moment, all those sacrifices and all those defeats and all the battle scars and all the surgeries and pain would be totally worth it.

The gap-toothed man, says McLeod, “would be grinning from ear to ear.”

(Photo by Erik Johnson: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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