Seven years after the fact, Chad Johnson still vividly recalls the warm, gentle fashion in which he was eased into his first NHL start by John Tortorella.
“I remember standing outside the dressing room with goalie coach Benoit Allaire, who was trying to get me ready for the game, and out the door comes Tortorella and he says, ‘Don’t eff this up,’ ” smiled the Flames netminder.
“He shook my hand, smiled and walked away. Benoit was trying to tell me not to worry about him, but I was fine.”
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This, of course, came following his first relief appearance, in which Johnson allowed his first NHL goal on the very first shot, mere seconds after spelling off Henrik Lundqvist.
“It was 23 seconds in and Simon Gagne came in on a half breakaway and went bar down,” chuckled Johnson. “It didn’t bother me, honestly.
“I kind of laughed, thinking I’d look back and remember I let my first shot in. But I said, ‘I can do this – I’m just as good as anybody else. I put the time in, sacrificed along the journey and I’m ready for this.’ The next shot was all I worried about.”
It’s a mindset the product of Southeast Calgary has maintained throughout a career in which it seems most of his six NHL stops have included coaches and managers who’ve looked at him like Tortorella, thinking, ‘Don’t eff this up.’
Brian Elliott and Johnson were brought in this summer to clean up an ugly goalie mess in Calgary, but the former has royally messed up his time as a Flame to date. It opened the door for Johnson to step up and be one of the most surprising storylines of the NHL season.
Capping off a stretch in which he’s won six of eight starts to up his record to 8-4-1, Johnson now owns a stellar 2.06 goals-against average and .930 save percentage on a sub-.500 team that has gone 3-9-1 in front of Elliott.
Largely responsible for helping the Flames post a league-high seven road wins, Johnson got a special moment at home Wednesday night, taking a bow as the first star following a 39-save shutout win over Toronto.
Most of the crowd stayed to applaud his efforts, giving him a rare moment to relish.
“It’s pretty crazy – I want to enjoy it all,” said the 30-year-old, who grew up watching his heroes in the same ‘Dome he now stars in.
“I know how hard it is to get here and I know where I came from. I always remember the journey. So it’s pretty surreal. It’s all kind of a whirlwind right now.”
A saviour of sorts who rescued the Flames from a horrific start, coach Glen Gulutzan went as far as to say Johnson has been the team’s MVP.
“It’s funny, some guys hit it in different times in their career and he’s an even-keeled guy who brings a real calming presence,” said GM Brad Treliving, who knew Johnson when the two worked for the Arizona Coyotes’ affiliate in Portland.
“He plays a very economical game – it doesn’t look like he burns many calories out there. Real stable and he’s been excellent for us and we need him to keep that going.”
Teammates love the 6-foot-3, 195-pound soft-spoken netminder, as does the media, who enjoy long discussions with him, even on game days.
Without displaying a hint of cockiness or arrogance, it’s clear his confidence in his ability has never wavered no matter how many teams have seen him as no more than a backup – a stigma he’s driven to erase.
“I always believed I could do it,” said Johnson, a fifth-round pick of the Penguins. “When I was six my mindset was, ‘someone has to be a goalie in the NHL.’
“There are only so many spots but it’s really, ‘who really wants to be that guy?’ ”
A starter for the Calgary Buffaloes in midget before a two-year stint with the Brooks Bandits, Johnson attended the University of Alaska for four years where he was a Hobey Baker finalist as a senior. From there he found himself parked behind goalie fixtures wherever he went.
“Obviously in Boston Tuukka (Rask) played great, Henrik was in New York, then Mike Smith too in Phoenix,” said Johnson. “No matter what you do, those are the guys. The money talks.
“They were great goalies and I understood I was behind them and was lucky to do so. It was never, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ it was just, ‘am I going to get the opportunity?’ Some guys just get it handed to them, some don’t. That’s life. You just have to grind it out and not worry about it.”
Johnson posted stunning numbers in Buffalo last year as the starter after Robin Lehner got hurt, opening the door for a one-year, $1.7-million contract with the Flames.
“It’s exciting to be in this locker room and be part of the team you grew up watching,” said the former Bow Valley Flame. “I always embrace being one of the goalies I used to admire. That’s why I signed here. I’ve wanted that pressure and that challenge that comes with being in your hometown.
“So far it has gone really well, but people turn quick. I’m obviously confident in my game and I know I can do this. Right now the results are coming, which is nice.”
The short-term goal is to continue proving he’s starting material and can give the Flames the type of goaltending Mike Vernon – the last Flames hometown starter – or Miikka Kiprusoff provided.
The goal then would be to re-sign here and join the list of late bloomers like Dominik Hasek, Devan Dubnyk, Tim Thomas and Craig Anderson. After all, the Flames will be goalie searching again next summer.
“It’s just about opportunity – it’s all who likes you, who sees you, your contract – so much goes into it besides just playing well,” he said of the chance to shine.
“Maybe your first year in the league you’re just happy to be there but after that I wanted to do more, and be relied upon, have that role and that pressure. You don’t want to be a passenger.”