One of the reasons the Stanley Cup is the best trophy in sports is that instead of being presented to the team’s owner first, it is given to the team’s captain. They get to lift it and all its glory and make the all-important decision of who to hand it to next. For Avalanche Captain Gabriel Landeskog, the decision was easy. Over the last few years, Landeskog told Erik Johnson to be ready. When they win the cup, it’s going straight to him.
Last season, Johnson felt like he would have to retire. The Avalanche had continually gone out in the second round of the playoffs, and injuries were catching up to him. He seemed done, but his teammates would not let that happen. They made it clear that they needed him if they were going to lift the cup.
Johnson has been with the Avalanche since 2011, when he was traded from the St. Louis Blues. After twelve years with Colorado, he is the longest-tenured athlete of any sports team in Denver. Originally a number one draft pick, Johnson came to Colorado while they were in the middle of a ten-game losing streak. They won one game and immediately started another ten-game losing streak. The Avalanche finished that season with 68 points and missed the playoffs. They were 29th in the league the following season and again missed the playoffs. In 2014, they would make the playoffs but were eliminated in the quarterfinals. They would miss the playoffs for the next three years, including the infamous season when the Avalanche finished with a mere 48 points. So many players wanted to leave after that season. Not Erik Johnson. He wanted to stay and make something of this team.
Unfortunately, disappointing back-to-back seasons weren’t the only things Johnson had to deal with. He has also been plagued by injuries his whole career. He’s lost teeth, needed surgery on his mouth, had season-ending knee injuries, shoulder issues, and had several concussions. In a game against the Minnesota Wild last season, Jordan Greenway checked Johnson hard, and his face took most of the impact as he hit the ice. He suffered a season-ending concussion. Johnson was ready to retire. No one would have blamed him. But he knew the team needed him.
In his first entire season with the Avalanche, Johnson had 22 assists and four goals in 73 games. Not a bad start on a team in the wrong place. This year marked Johnson’s best season. Johnson had eight goals, 17 assists, and 22 +/- in 77 games this year. He had the most blocked shots of any player in the regular season with 136 and 165 hits. Johnson came in second in the playoffs with 22 blocked shots and 54 hits. He has been one of the leaders in assists and played 857 NHL games. Most importantly, he’s been healthy the whole time.
Johnson is also the heart of the Avalanche. He played a significant role in helping Landeksog become the player he is now. They were roommates on the road, and Landeskog says, “He took care of me, and now, I’m taking care of him.” When the expansion draft came, Johnson waived his no-movement clause so the Avalanche could protect more players. It didn’t seem like Seattle would take him, but there was still a risk, and he took it anyway for the team. He mentors the young defensemen, taking them to dinner on the road, having jokes with them in the locker room, and always being available for advice. He wants them to feel comfortable and confident around the older players. Johnson has mostly been paired with a rookie defenseman, Bowen Byram. Byram has had his challenges with injuries, primarily concussions. Through all the steps of his recovery, Johnson was there to support his d-partner. Anytime anyone tried to mess with Byram on the ice, Johnson was in there immediately. He protected Byram and stood up for his team. That is Johnson – deeply caring, willing to be the next man up, a leader.
Every team has someone they want to see win the cup. Erik Johnson is that for the Avalanche. He has been there so long and fought many injuries, but he never lost faith. So, when the final seconds ticked down, and they had won, Erik Johnson was tackled into a hug by Nathan MacKinnon. The two lay on the ice, hugging in unbridled joy and brotherhood. They had reached their goal together. When they got up, Johnson hugged him again. It’s a moment worth more than one hug. Then after Landeksog took his victory lap, he handed the cup to Johnson. He made good on his promise.
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