Back from Belarus with Team USA following the World Hockey Championships, the Lightning’s rising star Tyler Johnson reflects on his whirlwind trip to Europe, being named a Calder Trophy finalist for the NHL’s Rookie of the Year and signing a new multi-million dollar contract with Tampa Bay. This and more from his home town of Spokane, Washington.
PAUL KENNEDY: You were pretty awesome at the World Championships. What’s the difference between wearing a Lightning jersey and putting on one that says "USA" on the front?
TYLER JOHNSON: It’s an incredible honor. This is the third time I’ve represented my country. I’m very proud of that. A lot of players would like to do this. I don’t take it for granted.
KENNEDY: You had a tremendous first season in the NHL and it continued in Belarus, centering the top line. You led the team with six goals in eight games. You logged more ice time than any forward. What clicked?
JOHNSON: I skated with Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders and Craig Smith, a 20-goal scorer with Nashville. Right away, we had great chemistry. It was great hockey and fun to be teammates with guys you play against back in the States.
JOHNSON: It was eye-opening. Here in the United States, the World Championships are not necessarily huge. But in Europe, it’s like winning an Olympic medal — or the Stanley Cup. The games were intense and the crowds were into it.
KENNEDY: Some might need a map to find Belarus, from the old Soviet Union. What did you think?
JOHNSON: The culture is still very much Russian. We played in Minsk, the capital. But the tournament was tremendously organized. They held events, concerts. There were so many restaurants. And a lot of parks. We were able to get out and around. Everyone was trying to speak English to us. Better than my Russian!
KENNEDY: Congratulations on your new contract. A multi-year, multi-million dollar deal. What’s the most money you ever earned before coming to the Lightning last year?
JOHNSON: Well, I used to work hockey camps and get room and board. And when I played juniors for the (Spokane) Chiefs, I think I got $200 every two weeks. But none of this has really hit me yet. You know, I actually signed the Lightning contract in Belarus during the tournament. They sent me the papers by e-mail, I printed them out off a computer, signed them and returned them. I’m ecstatic the way this has worked out.
KENNEDY: In just four years — undrafted out of juniors — you win the AHL Championship in Norfolk, are the league MVP with Syracuse, tie for the NHL league lead in goals among first-year players with 24, nominated for the Calder, and you return home from Europe a multi-millionaire. All this by the age of 23.
JOHNSON: It’s been a wild ride. I am in the perfect situation with Tampa Bay. A great staff, tremendous teammates. We have a group of guys that have played together in the minors and now the NHL. We made the playoffs this year. I learned a lot. And look at the teammates I had. The Calder nomination is pretty neat. I think we are just getting started.
KENNEDY: You played in every game — all 82. Add the World Championships and that’s a lot of hockey. Is it time for golf?
JOHNSON: I am going to take some time off. I need my body to rest. Muscles need to recover. But by July, I will be with my trainer and we’ll go at it, thru August toward training camp. I won’t get back on the ice and start skating again until August.
KENNEDY: What’s the hardest drill you will do conditioning for next season. Give us one that will make you lose sleep the night before.
JOHNSON: We do split squats. You carry heavy weights, and squat on eight-counts. First, eight seconds slowly squatting down. Hold the weight with your legs bent for eight seconds. Now, slowly, lift for eight seconds. Then you do it fast. Then you do it jumping. We do multiple sets. It leaves you totally exhausted. Tremendous for quads, lower back, endurance, explosion.
KENNEDY: What about the golf? Every NHL player I know can really hit the ball. It must be beautiful in Spokane this time of year, too.
JOHNSON: I played on my high school golf team and I love to play. Sometimes the Russian players in the league aren’t too good, but, you’re right. Most of the NHL guys can really play. This is the time of year that the outdoors around Spokane are awesome. The lakes, trails — it’s just gorgeous. Mostly in the 70s, but it will get to 90 degrees later in the summer.