Ryan Johansen’s childhood friendship endures in the pros
When Ryan Johansen was 10 years old, he moved into a new community outside Vancouver. He quickly found a friend in next door neighbor, Brian Bunka, with whom he could play street hockey every day. Eleven years later, those same two boys were playing hockey on the main ice in Nationwide Arena, and Johansen’s best friend was scoring on the reigning Vezina winner, Columbus Blue Jackets net minder, Sergei Bobrovsky.
"We were all interested to see what move (Bunka) would pull out," Johansen said. "He came down with the puck on his forehand, pulled it backhand, and, I don’t know if he caught Bob(rovsky) off-guard, but he scored."
Bunka, also known as "Bunks," wasn’t just in town to get some ice time, he was in Columbus for his third annual visit to see Johansen, the Blue Jackets, and the people surrounding the team, whom he says have become the most important people in his life.
"It’s very special for me to see the way he comes out here and supports me and our team," Johansen said. "He loves this hockey club more than anything in the world."
For Johansen, the passion and commitment Bunks exhibits for the Blue Jackets family is no surprise. The boys developed a deep friendship based on many shared interests, including a love of hockey.
"He would come and drag me outside and put me in net and pepper me with shots all day long," Bunka said. "I thought he had something special."
Their connection stayed strong throughout Johansen’s departure to play in Juniors at age 16, and then to play with the Blue Jackets in 2011. The Blue Jackets center attributes the endurance of their friendship to Bunks’ character.
"The first thing that comes to mind is he’s the most caring person I’ve ever met in my life," Johansen said. "He would do anything for anybody, whatever the circumstances may be. He’s been like that as long as I’ve known him."
That selflessness has made Bunks a huge part of Johansen’s support structure throughout his playing life. Johansen is having a breakout season after last year saw him shuffled between the Blue Jackets and their AHL club in Springfield.
"Last year, when I got sent down to the AHL, he was so supportive," Johansen said. "Little texts and messages go a long way when you have people who really care about you."
As much as Bunks brings Johansen support and a connection to home, Bunks’ dad, Jeff Bunka, who comes to Columbus every year as well, believes that Johansen brings a special gift to his son.
"They are like brothers. Not blood brothers, but they are brothers," Jeff said. "(Johansen) introduced him to a whole community of people who treat (Bunks) like a brother as well. As his dad, I love to see that."
When Bunks comes to Columbus each year, he builds a schedule that not only includes time with Johansen–they like to hang out and play video games–but also includes time with friends, who he’s met through his visits over the years. He’s especially close to his Twitter family, who follow Johansen’s childhood friend at @bunktuzzi44. Bunks got to meet up with many of them at the Nationwide Arena cannon during the first intermission of the past week’s games.
"The community has embraced me more than I could have ever expected," Bunks said.
Throughout life’s ups and downs, both Johansen and Bunks know that nothing is more important than friendship.
"After every game, win or lose, he texts me ‘great job buddy, we’ll get ’em next time’ or ‘that’s a huge win,’" Johansen said. "He tells me every day that he loves me and (I tell him the same). I’m proud that I can call him my best friend."
The Bunkas wrapped up their annual visit to Columbus this past week by watching Johansen and the Blue Jackets beat the Minnesota Wild March 15. Bunks watched Johansen score the game-winning goal in the shootout win. Afterward, Bunks was all smiles–he believes the Jackets are playoff-bound.
"It feels good," Bunks said. "To see such a great team effort during my visit is pretty cool."
Johansen hopes to continue the Jackets’ winning ways as well and he looks forward to sharing it with his best friend.
"It’s cool we can share some success this year," Johansen said. "It’s really cool that he’s a part of it with me."
Johansen and the Blue Jackets return to action Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes. The puck drops at 7 p.m. in Nationwide Arena. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, visit www.bluejackets.nhl.com.