TORONTO — Long before Josh Johnson first picked up a baseball, he held a hockey stick and took to the ice around at his local Minneapolis outdoor rink.
The hulking Toronto Blue Jays right-hander was a regular on skates until his family moved to Oklahoma City when he was five, ending his days on the ice but not his passion for the game.
“We’d go to the park, watch a bunch of games and when some of the other kids would leave I’d get to jump in and play a bit when I was three, four years old,” explained Johnson. “I loved going out there with my brothers, no rules and just getting after it.”
The youngest of five boys born over eight years, Johnson was a regular in goal during street hockey games after his family’s move. Though Mike Modano was his favourite player — “He was pretty much it up in Minnesota” — he ended up embracing his role as netminder. Not that he had a choice.
“My brothers would put pads all over me and take slapshots at me,” he said. “I’m the baby of five boys so I had to do whatever they said.”
Those Minnesota roots run deep and these days the Wild, as opposed to the North Stars of yesteryear, are his favourite team as the NHL playoffs get underway.
He’s realistic about their chances, and doesn’t expect them to get out of the first round. Blue Jays teammate Brett Cecil, on the other hand, sees his Washington Capitals going all the way.
A native of Dunkirk, Maryland, he grew up loathing the Pittsburgh Penguins, Johnson’s pick as Stanley Cup champions, and cheering for the likes of Petr Bondra, Calle Johansson and Dino Ciccarelli.
“My favourite players were Sergei Gonchar and Joey Juneau,” said Cecil. “I liked Juneau because he just looked like a big dirt-ball out there, with the big beard and long hair. Good player.”
The two pitchers agreed to share their picks for the first round of NHL playoffs with sportsnet.ca:
No. 1 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 8 New York Islanders
Cecil – Islanders: “John Tavares is awesome and the Penguins suck and I hate them.”
Johnson – Penguins: “There have been about three or four teams who have been playing really well pretty much all year, and I’ve got Pittsburgh winning it.”
No. 2 Montreal Canadiens vs. No. 7 Ottawa Senators
Cecil – Canadiens: “They’ve got a great goalie, so does Ottawa, but I think Carey Price is going to turn it on in the playoffs.”
Johnson – Canadiens: “I don’t know if that will sit very well here in Toronto, but they’ve been doing pretty well themselves.
No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Rangers
Cecil – Capitals: “They’re the hottest team in the NHL right now, the goalie is hot, Alexander Ovechkin is obviously scoring goals and they’ve played the Rangers in three of the last four years in the playoffs and beat them twice.”
Johnson – Rangers: “This a tough one, but I think the Rangers can be like what the Kings were last year.”
No. 4 Boston Bruins vs. No. 5 Toronto Maple Leafs
Cecil – Maple Leafs: “First time in a while they’re in the playoffs, things are going to be really exciting for them and they’re going to take it on the ice and just go with it and mow them down.”
Johnson – Maple Leafs: “Leafs. I’m going to stick with them.”
No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks vs. No. 8 Minnesota Wild
Cecil – Blackhawks: “What do they have, 70,000 points this year?”
Johnson – Blackhawks: “They’ve playing so good this whole season. If Jason Pominville comes back for the Wild that might change it.”
No. 2 Anaheim Ducks vs. No. 7 Detroit Red Wings
Cecil – Ducks: “The last time I saw Detroit play, they looked kind of sloppy.”
Johnson – Ducks: “They’ve been right there just behind the Blackhawks and playing well.”
— No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 6 San Jose Sharks
Cecil – Sharks: “Just because (former Blue Jays pitcher) Scott Richmond loves Vancouver.”
Johnson – Sharks: “It seems San Jose always plays pretty good up until the conference finals. I’ve got to pick some upsets in here somewhere.”
No. 4 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Kings
Cecil – Kings: “Got to go with L.A. because that’s where Ricky Romero is from. That’s my boy.”
Johnson – Kings: “They did it last year, they kind of backed into the playoffs this year, their road record is a little shaky, but hopefully they can steal one in St. Louis and win out at home.”