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Kings' prize is on clock

Jack Johnson, a tough Michigan defenseman, has decision to make after sophomore season.

February 21, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — Jack Johnson, the sleek and fierce defenseman for the University of Michigan, goes over the boards for a third-period shift and the chant trails him onto the ice: "Two more years, two more years, two more years."

This is senior night, the last regular-season hurrah for six of the Wolverines' players. Yost Ice Arena is the school's beloved, 85-year-old brick building that leaks, creaks and is packed with so many hockey-loving freaks that it trembles at times from foot-stomping emotion.

David Rohlfs, a senior, tucks in a backhander for the game-winning goal in the 3-1 victory over Western Michigan. Matt Hunwick sets up the play with a slick pass. Yet another senior moment.

But what has the loud and occasionally vicious student section in a lather is a sophomore: "Two more years, two more years."

This may be Johnson's last Hail-to-the-Victors night in Ann Arbor. Students plead for him to stay put, but the woeful Los Angeles Kings, who acquired his rights in a September trade, hope he comes west.

"Last year, they were yelling, 'Three more years,' now it's two," Johnson said the next day, huddling at Yost as the temperature outside fought its way toward 6, the day's expected high. "After the game, the seniors [on the team] said I should go out with them to say goodbye. That was funny."

But California dreamin', even on such a winter's day, is on the shelf until his college season ends, which could be as early as next month. His future is clear, however. He became a linchpin in the Kings' rebuilding process as soon as General Manager Dean Lombardi pried him away from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Johnson is reviled in Canada, in English and French, after last year's on-ice tete-a-tete with Team Canada's Steve Downie during the World Junior Championships.

And he is certainly despised in every college town the Wolverines have tromped through; Nebraska-Omaha fans threw pucks at him after a game, he said.

But in Southern California, his arrival is eagerly anticipated. Even Lombardi, try as he might, finds it hard to couch his words.

"To expect him to come in and turn around the franchise, that's unrealistic and unfair," Lombardi said.

Still, Lombardi added, "We're excited about getting our hands on him. There is some work that needs to be done. But, as the old saying goes, I'd rather tame a tiger than try to paint stripes on a kitty cat. He's a tiger."


Johnson flicked a wrist shot. A second later, the Wolverines' fans were serenading the Western Michigan goaltender, "It's all your fault, it's all your fault."

Still, hard to blame the guy. A week before, Johnson burned Ferris State for five goals and eight points in two games.

Johnson's shot is so wicked that one ripped the mask off a Boston College goaltender in a game last season. His eagerness to punish opponents has left him without a pal in Kalamazoo, home of Western Michigan fans, who, like others around the Central Collegiate Hockey Assn., are weary of Johnson's body of work.

Those skills give Johnson, the third-overall NHL draft pick in 2005, a leading role in Lombardi's long-term plan. The Kings gave up defenseman Tim Gleason and center Eric Belanger, but only after the Hurricanes failed to lure the 6-foot-1 Johnson away from Michigan family ties; his grandfather played football, basketball and baseball for the Wolverines; his mother also attended the university.

Hollywood, though, may be a bit more tempting than Tobacco Road, even if the Hurricanes are the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Johnson's star appeal could mesh for a perfect L.A. story.

* He and Pittsburgh Penguins' wunderkind Sidney Crosby remain close, a continuation of the friendship carved out as teammates at Shattuck St. Mary's, a Minnesota prep school.

* The King of Sweden's son requested an audience with Johnson at this year's World Junior Championships.

* Johnson spent the summer working out in the weight room with Olympic gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps.

Johnson has the hockey ability to go along with that A-list crowd.

"The first time we put Jack on the ice was when he was 4, and he stood up and just started skating," said Tina Johnson, his mother. "He didn't fall, he didn't wobble. He just skated to the other end of the rink."

Just three years later, Johnson announced his plans.

"We were riding home after a game and he said, 'I've decided to be a defenseman,' " said Jack Johnson Sr., his father.

That dream was upgraded to NHL defenseman when Johnson went to the National Select 15 Festival in St. Cloud, Minn.

"That was the first time I played against the best guys in my age group," Johnson said. "I was nervous and didn't know how good the rest of the players were around the U.S. I pretty much did whatever I wanted to do. I started thinking, 'I got a future in this.' "

Johnson has continued to grow, in ability and confidence.

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