COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Ryan Johansen, it always comes back to belief.
The talent that carried him to the NHL has been there all along. The biggest hurdle he’s had to overcome is finding a way to convince himself that he can be among the best.
So when the 22-year-old took to the familiar ice at Nationwide Arena for Sunday’s all-star game, and didn’t look the least bit out of place, it brought up some strange feelings for the Columbus Blue Jackets centre.
“To me it felt like I was playing a road hockey game with my buddies,” he said. “I was pretending to be (Alex) Ovechkin and (teammate Nick) Foligno was trying to be (Jonathan) Toews or (Wayne) Gretzky. It’s just so surreal. You just never expect this to happen when you’re growing up as a kid.
“It hasn’t been an easy road for both of us; a lot of hard work goes into this.”
That Johansen found himself accepting a car and the MVP award at centre ice when the evening was over only added to the experience. He had two goals and two assists in a game where it was raining goals and received a boost from the hometown fans.
Even if John Tavares had more goals and Jakub Voracek had more points, it was a fitting recognition.
Johansen was a star among the stars this weekend — pulling on an Ohio Buckeyes sweater during Saturday’s skills competition and entertaining a fanbase that was thrilled to be hosting a major NHL event. When he scored his first goal on Sunday night, he motioned to the crowd to get on its feet.
It was a long way from where the Vancouver native found himself in September, when he was locked in a contentious contract negotiation with the Blue Jackets and sat out all of training camp.
That ended up getting solved with a $12-million, three-year deal, but there are still a few hints of bitterness left behind. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen has said that Johansen was hurt by missing camp even though he once again leads the team with 43 points at the break.
This is a player that the organization believes has a higher level to get to. No one wants him to get too comfortable. It’s a message that Foligno has delivered constantly and seems to now be sinking in.
“He would pull me in corners and really push me to become a better player,” said Johansen. “It’s nice to see that confidence from other players and belief in me and my abilities. This weekend is definitely a confidence booster — (I’m) obviously very happy to be a part of the all-star game and stuff, but it’s important to not get too high, not get too low and just have that even keel where you’re just a humble person.”
That comes pretty naturally to Johansen, who is always quick with a smile.
His path to the NHL was unique. As a bantam player, he wasn’t drafted into the Western Hockey League until the 150th pick and the Portland Winterhawks later had to convince him to leave the BCHL rather than pursue a NCAA scholarship.
Yet, by the time the 2010 NHL draft rolled around, the Blue Jackets took him with the fourth overall pick. His stock skyrocketed after scouts got a look at his unique blend of size and skill.
However, there have still be some twists and turns, including a stint in the American Hockey League where he was scratched for a game just two seasons ago.
Now he is on the cusp of superstardom.
“He is a great player,” said Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos. “I think people are starting to pay attention to him. Maybe he flew under the radar a little bit last year. He has played great for these guys.”
“He’s got sweet hands,” added Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar. “He’s a big boy and he’s very strong on the puck. That’s all you’ve really got to know about him.
“He’s obviously very dangerous.”
As Johansen returns to the grind of the NHL season, he should be buoyed by the praise of his peers. He hasn’t always believed that he belonged in their class, but there’s no doubt when you ask those he competes against.
“He’s really crafty and nifty with the puck,” said Chicago Blackawks winger Patrick Kane. “He’s a young, special player. I mean he’s going to be good for a long time.
“Columbus has a good one.”
That they do.