Comets GM dealing with hardship of brother’s death, sending players home

Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, left, and Vancouver Canucks center Ryan Johnson battle. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

The spectrum of what we in prosperous nations consider hardship has veered as sharply as our lives have in the last week, and not because we can’t watch sports or buy toilet paper, although in both cases we sure wish we could.

But by any emotional measure, Monday was a very difficult day for Utica Comets general manager Ryan Johnson, whose big brother Greg – “my hero” — would have turned 49 on March 16 had he not taken his own life last July.

With his grief renewed over the loss of his brother, Johnson then had to send away his hockey family when the American Hockey League, in lockstep with the National Hockey League, extended indefinitely its suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic and dismissed its players to travel home.

Johnson couldn’t even offer a proper goodbye. Nobody could, he said.

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“It has been extremely hard,” Johnson told Sportsnet on Tuesday from Nashville, where he’s safely home with his wife and their two children. “Since this started, I felt a huge responsibility for the safety of my players and the safety of my staff.

“This was all done by phone and text. I just didn’t want a congregation of guys in the dressing room. Everybody is paying close attention to (the coronavirus), and we just couldn’t have that.”

Johnson, whose other job title is senior director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks, the Comets’ parent team, said he gave his minor-league players as much information as he could as professional hockey screeched to a halt from full speed over a couple of days last week.

He helped coordinate travel, which included bringing goalie Richard Bachman back from Sweden where he was sent in February on loan to IK Oscarshamn, and getting Nikolay Goldobin, Olli Juolevi and Lukas Jasek home to Europe.

He talked to North American players about whether to fly or drive.

“I just tried to give them as much information as I could so they could make the decision that was best for them,” Johnson said. “In the end, most of the Western Canadians just packed up their cars and started driving.”

To get them their gear from the arena, Johnson arranged a pickup “window” for each player because he didn’t want more than a couple there at a time. In some cases, trainer Damion Parmelee met them at the door with their equipment bags, so the players didn’t even enter the building.

The last time the team was together was for an optional skate on Thursday, when coach Trent Cull and his players learned that Friday’s home game against the Belleville Senators – and all future games, it turned out – had been postponed.

“No chance for exit meetings,” Johnson said. “No chance just to get together to say goodbye. That was something that a lot of guys expressed a problem with – no chance to talk in person and say goodbye. It doesn’t feel like there was closure.

“That was hard for me. I’m still trying to process this, and I’m not sure how to do it. If this is the end of the season, we know the team won’t be the same. It’s never the same.

“I care so much about these guys. From the moment we leave Vancouver (after NHL training camp), I let these players know 100 per cent that this is where I’m supposed to be, giving them the opportunity to grow as players and people and trying to help them any way we can. I’m not there to try to get myself another title or a promotion (to the NHL). I want them to use me to get there. Everything we do is to help them elevate themselves. We try to engage with their families and girlfriends so that they are part of this, too. I could see these guys grow, and I just wanted to see them have an opportunity to finish this. But at some point you realize the world is in a different place.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

At age 44, Ryan Johnson manages with the same absolute conviction and selflessness with which he played 701 NHL games over 15 professional seasons, building a career on hard work and fearlessness.

He lives in Nashville because he learned to love the city when Greg played there and captained the Predators for the final seasons of his own 785-game NHL career, which was halted in 2006 by the discovery of a heart abnormality.

The boys grew up in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Ryan followed Greg to the University of North Dakota, then the Canadian national team program, the AHL and NHL.

“I can’t lie to you and say this has been an easy time,” Ryan said when asked about the last nine months. “The only way I’ve approached things most of my life is when I come across adversity, try to digest things and understand them, and then move forward and try to get better. I see adversity as a chance to get better.”

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