The Colorado Avalanche’s captain of the defensive corps, Erik Johnson, rocked his interview with Hockey Night in Canada’s After Hours.
When you just watch post-game or post-practice pressers, you forget what an engaging speaker Johnson is. Back in the day, when EJ was a young lad in his 20s, he was as scripted as any hockey player. (Here’s a great example of Early EJ, from 2011.) Naturally, with age and experience, Johnson has become more natural.
What’s great about Erik’s interviews, though, is he’s cordial — he regularly calls interviewers by name — and tells good stories. One of my favorites was in a podcast that the Colorado Avalanche website took down. (I believe I’ve mentioned I never liked their new format.)
Anyway, in the podcast, Johnson talked about his year at the University of Minnesota. For some reason he didn’t have a car but rather a scooter. (Take a moment to picture 6-foot-4 EJ on a scooter.) One day, a car turned right in front of his scooter, causing Johnson to slip on some ice and go flying every which way.
Every time it’s icy and slushy here in Colorado, the image of a gigantic hockey player going one way and his comically small scooter going another way flashes in my head.
Anyway, moving on the the After Hours interview. Louie DeBrusk and Scott Oake start on a light-hearted note — though they take a couple digs at the fact that the Avs blew a two-goal lead to lose in overtime to the Calgary Flames. They ask Johnson about having dated then married Hollywood star Jessica Simpson.
They flash up images of Simpson and her husband, Eric-with-a-c Johnson, who used to be an NFL tight end. Our Erik — Erik-with-a-k Johnson — just laughs and remarks “I’ve gotten a little bit younger over the years.” (Mr. Simpson is nine years older and graying at the temples.)
Classic EJ, though — witty and ready to crack a joke, even at his own expense.
Fun fact: When Johnson first got traded to the Avs, I was researching who this new kid was. I kept coming across pictures of Jessica Simpson and I thought, “Oh, yeah, hockey players are always dating starlets and singers and such.” It was probably a year later that I got curious enough about how they met (which is something Oake asks) that I clicked on the image and realized that was not the man playing defense for the Avs.
Back to Johnson’s dry wit. A little later in the interview, they talk about what it was like to get drafted first-overall. That, of course, was the albatross around Johnson’s neck for the early part of his career until he had Patrick Roy as a coach, who told him to “Forget the first-overall thing” and just play your game.
So, they showed a clip of a teenaged Johnson getting drafted by the St. Louis Blues, remarking that Johnson was the first-ever Minnesotan to go at that position. (He’s still the only one.) Not to get too loving on EJ, Oake remarked, “And your mother was not too excited.”
Johnson quipped, “My frosted tips don’t look very good either.”
Props to Oake, though, who right after called Johnson “one of the NHL’s elite defenders.” And props to Johnson who gets serious and truthful about his struggles early on with the expectations:
"“I’m not going to lie. It was tough right away. I think I might have let a little bit get to my head. I think I thought it was going to be easier than it was. Truthfully, when you get drafted, that’s just the start. You have to prove yourself all over again. I had some down years, and it took me a while to figure out my game. I couldn’t be happier to be here in Colorado. Some things I regret, and some things I wish had happened differently, but it’s things you live and you learn from.”"
There’s a lot going on there. It’s not too often that you’ll get a hockey player to make an admittance like “I thought it was going to be easier.” And when you do, they get lambasted like Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. But Johnson just takes it in stride and even gets philosophical about how he might wish some things had gone differently, but that it’s all about learning from them.
I haven’t watched a lot of these After Hours interviews, but it does seem like they ask some tough questions — like when they asked Nathan MacKinnon about getting hit in the eye last season. This time they asked Johnson about his golf cart injury.
In case you’ve never heard the story, it was just before what was supposed to be Erik’s sophomore season. He was participating in a Blues’ golf outing. It’s been said that the players were horsing around, playing golf cart polo. It’s also been reported that Johnson’s foot somehow got caught between pedals. Oake remarks that Johnson “[stuck] your leg out of the cart.”
Whatever the actual injury, it resulted in a torn ACL and MCL, which resulted in Johnson having to miss the entire 2008-09 season.
Johnson, of course, took full responsibility for the accident. He also admitted that it was a “grueling recovery” but it helped him develop the mental fortitude to undergo recovery from injuries. That is, unfortunately, something Johnson has gotten a lot of practice with.
Now, one of the central topics that always comes up with Erik Johnson is his teeth — or, specifically, his hockey smile. Fun fact — Johnson has never had a full set of teeth as an Avalanche player. In fact, the loss of his teeth was part of a brutal week in February 2011, that started with the defenseman making an own-goal:
Johnson laughs it off now, calling it “One of my better goals. As you can see, it’s on my own net — pretty good shot, though, right?” However, about a week after that game, he was traded late in the evening to the Colorado Avalanche. According to an interview he did with Adrian Dater at the time (sorry, Dater took the video down), he was “floored.” There had been no hint that the Blues were shopping him.
Anyway, between that own-goal and the trade, Johnson lost his teeth. EJ has relayed in a couple different interviews that he was in practice screening the goalie. The puck skittered up his stick and knocked his teeth out. He said at the time that a cut on his lip hurt worse than the teeth getting knocked out.
According to the After Hours interview, Johnson has had the posts implanted to eventually get the teeth replaced. However, he laughs and says he thinks he looks better without him. He says that fellow players and even his own girlfriend say he looks goofy with his teeth in.
Indeed, I always think he looks too toothy with his dentures in. However, it’s hilarious when he slides them out at his teammates to troll them.
The other topic that interviewers always bring up is Johnson’s passion for horse racing. I’ve talked about this passion in previous posts. He doesn’t divulge anything too new here except some of the funny names he’s given his horses, including Don’t Tell Jackie and Wacky Jackie, who apparently runs so slow Johnson thinks he can run faster. (He also mentioned Jackie complains that he only names the losing horses after her.)
There’s also Splashy Kisses, but Johnson states that’s not about Jackie. We can all take a moment to guess who the inspiration was for that horse’s name. (My money is on the captain, Gabriel Landeskog.)
He also had a horse named after him — or, I should say, because of him. J. Paul Reddam is apparently a big Red Wings fan and an acquaintance through horse racing for Johnson. Reddam wanted Johnson to sign with the Wings when he became a free agent. (Johnson extended with the Colorado Avalanche before hitting free agency.)
"Johnson’s response, “Paul, there is absolutely no chance I’m going to sign with the Wings. I would rather do anything than sign with your Red Wings.”"
So, Reddam named his new horse Nyquist, after Gustav Nyquist of the Wings just to spite Erik. Nyquist the horse went on to win the Kentucky Derby that year.
DeBrusk and Oake got Erik Johnson talking about hockey, too, of course. They started out with the game the Colorado Avalanche had just played — the 3-2 overtime loss in Denver against the Calgary Flames. Erik was really honest about that:
"“We took our foot off the gas. We made some poor choices in our lines. I think that fed into their transition game a little bit… frankly, after the first 10, 15 minutes we didn’t deserve a bit out of that game. They outplayed us after that.”"
They talked also about the general state of the Avalanche — especially how Erik is now one of the veterans:
"“I’m old now. [laughs] I’m one of the older guys on the blueline now, on the team. It’s weird to come in the locker room and have the most games on the team. I remember when I was a rookie and we had guys like Keith Tkachuk and Dough Weight and they had thousands of games played [between them]. Enormous respect in the league. Then I kind of rolled a switch where you’re the old guy now and the young guys are looking up to you.”"
That’s a subject I was really trying to explore in this post:
Erik has the most games of any player on the team. He has been there year after year — since February 2011 — being one of the, if not the, prime member of the defensive corps. The Colorado Avalanche blueline has been shaped by him and will continue to be shaped by him as he mentors the likes of Samuel Girard, Nikita Zadorov, and eventually Conor Timmins and Cale Makar.
He will leave his stamp on them the way Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk, and even Al McInnis left their stamp on him.
And like all veterans, Erik Johnson has his iconic moments. Here’s one that shows the long-legged speed he’s always had:
As is typical, Johnson brushes it off as the puck slowing down. But, as Oake points out, not a lot of players could catch that puck before it goes into the open net.
Here is the interview in its entirety:
You can also catch it at the link at the beginning of the post.
Erik Johnson gets a lot of love on this site partially because he gets so much criticism on other sites. He has his roles, as the cornerstone defenseman, as the captain of the blueline, as the mentor training his heirs. But as this and other interviews show, EJ is also an ambassador for the Colorado Avalanche and the game as a whole.