Sept. 20, 2014
Notre Dame, Ind. - Former University of Notre Dame hockey player Stephen Johns walked into the Fighting Irish locker room designated for Chicago Blackhawks players during their weekend training camp at the Compton Family Ice Arena wearing a black t-shirt adorned with artwork of the feathers from the fabled Blackhawks' logo.
One word was emblazoned on the shirt--Strength.
Johns continued Saturday afternoon to display the strength he has to carve out a career in the National Hockey League with another impressive showing in the Blackhawks' session at Notre Dame. Johns highlighted his effort by dishing to Blackhawks' star Jonathan Toews for a goal during a scrimmage.
Strength turned out to be an appropriate word for Johns to be wearing on his t-shirt. Toews, who has helped the Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup twice in the past five seasons, said Johns' strength as a defenseman has been a major asset in his quest to earn an NHL paycheck.
"Stephen is more mature physically than a lot of pros already," Toews said. "I think for him, it's just learning the pro game. It's a little more controlled. It's all about positioning. That will come with time. The more you play, the more you learning about positioning."
Johns is learning the pro game from the players he watched when he was younger.
"When we were back in Chicago and I saw the lineup," Johns said of getting ready for training camp. "I saw my first line was Toews, (Patrick) Sharp and (Marian) Hossa. That was a pinch-me moment. You watch those guys your whole life. You grow up idolizing them, and now you're playing with them. But it's still a hockey game. You have to prepare and go out and leave those distractions aside."
Johns, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman, had another pinch-me moment when he triggered the Blackhawks' fabled blaring goal horn with a bullet pass to Toews for a score during the second round of scrimmages.
"I saw (Toews) open and tried to slide it back door, and it made it through," Johns said. "It was pretty cool, especially to do it here at Compton.
"Whenever you can get on a goal it's great, but to pass to a guy like Jonathan Toews is special. Usually when you put it on his tape, it's going in. I got lucky a little bit. I had to pass it through some sticks and some skates, but luckily it got on his tape, and he does what he does."
Johns completed an exceptional career at Notre Dame in 2014. The native of Wampum, Pennsylvania, scored eight goals and dished out 12 assists in 40 games for coach Jeff Jackson's Fighting Irish last season. Notre Dame finished 23-15-2, advancing to the NCAA's West Regional.
Drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round (60th overall) in the 2010 entry draft, Johns opened eyes in a short stint with the Blackhawks' minor-league team in Rockford. He scored one goal and had four assists for five points in just eight games.
Defenseman Nick Leddy said Johns is playing very well, and that it's just a matter of adjusting to the pro game.
"Everything happens quicker at this level," Leddy said. "Mistakes will definitely hurt you in the league, because everybody can score. It's about having confidence, and you have to be wary of certain players. To me, the more games you play, the more confidence you have and the more you learn."
Johns said he is totally focusing on learning the pro game and making an all-out effort to earn a spot on the Blackhawks.
"You just have to embrace the situation and stay positive no matter what happens," Johns said. "If it doesn't work out right away, that motivates you more to make it happen. I won't stop until I make my dream come true. Hopefully, it's sooner rather than later."
For Johns, the experience of having the Blackhawks training camp at Compton Family Ice Arena made the experience particularly meaningful.
"Just putting on the Blackhawks jersey in this building, in any building, is a special experience," Johns said. "It's an unbelievable experience, especially being back here. I felt very comfortable here. I saw some familiar faces in the stands, so that was nice. I love being back here, but I have to focus on hockey as much as I can and stay away from the distractions."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent