Gordo: Former Blue Erik Johnson’s perseverance rewarded with Stanley Cup quest | Jeff Gordon

Not many of you want the Colorado Avalanche to dispatch the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Most folks in these parts don’t want to see Nazem Kadri cradling the Stanley Cup, given how he took out Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington. People would rather see hometown hero Pat Maroon earn still another ring.

St. Louis Rams fans have nightmares of land-hoarding recluse Stan Kroenke hoisting the sacred chalice over his skull tarp.

But how can you cheer against Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson?

The former Blue is one of the sport’s true good guys – and he has moved within arm’s reach of the sport’s pinnacle after overcoming enough adversity to derail several careers.

NHL.com summarized Johnson’s injuries since he turned pro in 2007: “Busted teeth and broken feet, broken kneecaps and torn knee ligaments, dislocated shoulders and dislocated fingers, high-ankle sprains and concussions … surgery on each shoulder, two surgeries on one knee, two surgeries in his mouth. ”

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Somehow, Johnson, 34, just kept going through 857 regular-season NHL games and another 45 and counting in the playoffs. None of his recoveries were easy, but overcoming the severe concussion suffered four games into last season presented the biggest challenge of all.

“I was just kind of thinking to myself,‘ Do I really want to keep putting my body through all this with all I’ve been through? ’” Johnson told reporters before the Stanley Cup Final began. “Thankfully, this year I’ve been healthy, I haven’t been hurt, and it’s just been a lot of fun to be out there.”

Diehard Blues fans know his unfortunate backstory well. Back in 2006, when the Blues were still cursed, the team made him the first overall pick in the NHL Draft.

Owners Bill and Nancy Laurie, Kroenke’s less successful in-laws, decided to go into tank-and-sell mode after the NHL lockout erased the 2004-05 season. The team dumped talent and took a 21-46-15 beating in 2005-06.

Deliberate losing earned the Blues the top pick in what turned out to be one of the worst drafts in modern times. There was no Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid atop it.

Of course that’s how it fell for the Blues.

The optimal pick would have been cornerstone center Jonathan Toews, who went to the Chicago Blackhawks at No. 3. Blues scouting director Jarmo Kekalainen pushed for Johnson instead.

Toews would eventually drive the Blackhawks on a dynastic run while Johnson embarked on a merely solid career.

Kekalainen’s whiff helped explain why he later became general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets, not the Blues.

This draft call was reminiscent of Montreal scouting director Ron Caron pushing the Canadiens to take Doug Wickenheiser over Denis Savard with the first overall pick in 1980. Savard went to the Blackhawks at No. 3 and became a superstar while Wickenheiser embarked on a merely solid career.

That’s why Caron later became general manager of the Blues instead of rising in the ranks with his beloved Canadiens.

After a year at the University of Minnesota and a season in the NHL, Johnson blew up his knee in a golf cart accident during a raucous team outing. This was reminiscent of how Wickenheiser, who came to the Blues in a trade, blew up his knee during a snipe hunt at a raucous team outing.

This Blues curse is eerie, no?

The Blues only reached the postseason once during Johnson’s time here – in 2008-09, when Johnson was recovering from reconstructive surgery.

Unfairly, Johnson became the face of failure for the Blues. Try as he might, he couldn’t become the catalyst the franchise needed for its relaunch.

The Blues traded him and Jay McClement to Colorado during the 2010-11 season for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and winger Chris Stewart.

That one-sided swap gave the Blues a jolt. They began a run of 10 postseason trips in 11 years while the Avalanche missed the playoffs in five of Johnson’s first six full seasons. They bottomed out at 22-56-4 in 2016-17.

“Some of those down years where we were losing, it was a grind, but we stuck with it,” Johnson said. “A lot of those guys that I’ve been with, we went through those hard times and those tough years. We kept our noses down and our chins up and just kept working. ”

That sustained failure helped the Avalanche amass stars like Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Between injuries, Johnson assumed the role of mentor as Colorado added skilled young defensemen Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram to the lineup.

Now Johnson is collecting his payoff for persisting through pain. The Avalanche morphed into a juggernaut in the twilight of his career.

“Not everyone gets the chance to play for the Stanley Cup, so from that standpoint, I’m just grateful and lucky to be here,” Johnson said. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of timing and a lot of good luck to get here.

“I’ve had a lot of years here, some good, some bad, a lot of injuries. You know, when you go through some downs, you’re never sure what light is going to be at the end of the tunnel. ”

Now that Blues fans finally have their Cup, maybe they can be happy for Johnson if he gets one too.


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