As he joins us from his Pittsburgh hotel room, preparing for yet another NHL broadcast, analyst Mike Johnson comes off exactly how he appears on television – laid back, happy and pleasant.
The easy mannered Scarborough native is almost 14 years removed from a fine NHL career that trekked through Toronto, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Montreal and St. Louis. These days, he’s much better known to Ottawa fans as the guy who helps break down Senators games on TSN.
Over the course of this year’s regular season, the 48 year old (who looks closer to 38) figures he called about 50 games, including as many as 20 Sens games. Combine that with his work on the NHL Network, along with countless other appearances on radio, TV and podcasts, and it’s pretty clear that Johnson has found his groove here in chapter two of his career.
Chapter one, which included playing over 600 games in the NHL, almost never happened – at least not as we know it. Johnson temporarily quit hockey at age 12.
“Puberty didn’t hit until I was 18,” Johnson said. “So I was just too small as hitting started. I was once the best player on my team and now I wasn’t the best player. And it wasn’t so much fun anymore. I was Triple A and one of the good kids in the city up until I was 12 and then I stopped.”
Johnson would obviously get back to the game again, and obviously got very good again, but it wasn’t until his senior year at Bowling Green that he even remotely considered the NHL as a possibility.
“I didn’t think one second at all about the NHL in my life,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Maybe as a little kid, but not once I got to be a teenager. It just wasn’t realistic. I was going to Bowling Green to get an education, to get a degree. Hockey was a means to an end, just to get a scholarship and get school paid for. And it turned out I liked it. I liked it a lot. It was a really good time.”
Johnson’s success in NCAA hockey could have been delayed, or might not have happened at all, if one of his teammates been a little more careful with his beer.
“We had 10 freshmen in my recruiting class and I was at the bottom of that class. So I wasn’t supposed to play the first game. But the weekend before the game, my future roommate happened to walk outside with his beer and got in trouble for it.
“Jerry York was our coach – the longtime famous coach at Boston College. And he was very strict. He told my buddy he couldn’t play the first game because he got in trouble. So York chose me to play. I got five assists in my first game. And I played every game the rest of that year. So if my buddy doesn’t walk outside (with his beer)… I don’t know. Like, these kinds of moments happen along the way.”
By the time Johnson’s second season rolled around, he was fourth in league scoring and expected to go in the NHL’s supplemental draft. But then the 1994 lockout happened and the draft was canceled. Even then, Johnson still didn’t think of himself as an NHL player. He was more upset about missing out on the NHL cap and sports bag that draft picks received back then.
By his senior year, the NHL dream finally came to life.
“I did well (30 goals, 62 points in 38 games) and it kind of became apparent to me by Christmas that I’ll probably play pro hockey. And then by February, it was more like, ‘Oh, I’ll probably play in the NHL. So it kind of happened quickly, and happened late.”
Faces: So what was your first NHL game like, and what was it like playing in Toronto?
Mike Johnson: Yeah, it’s a bit different. So I remember, we played on a Friday night when my career ended in Bowling Green. I thought I was going to sign on the Monday and then head to wherever I was going and play. So I went out on Friday night in a typical end of career kind of night in college. You could imagine what that’s like! I was home at 5 or 6 in the morning… who knows? And then the phone rings at 8, and it’s my agent, Pat Morris.
Pat says,“The Leafs want to sign you today.”
I’m like, “What?”
Pat says, “Yeah, and they want you to get going.”
I’m like, “Pat, I can’t.”
And Pat says “Well, you’re gonna have to.”
So I signed with the Leafs on Saturday, scrambled around and got down to Tampa and played my first NHL game on Sunday.
Wow. That is one crazy weekend.
Yeah, it was wild. And I remember walking in the room and the first time I went to the morning skate, an optional skate late in the year since the Leafs had played the night before. There were four guys there. Honestly, I did not know any of them. I don’t mean personally, I mean I didn’t know who any of them were.
Later, I go back and have my pre-game meal. Larry Murphy, Hall of Famer, sits beside me at the pre-game meal and I want to just eat and get outta there because it’s very nerve wracking.
Larry says, “Hey, what’s up kid?”
I’m like, “Not much.”
Larry’s being genuine and kind and he asks me,
“So, what contest did you win?”
I’m like, “I’m not here to be the Molson fan of the day! I just signed. I’m on the team. I’m playing!”
He’s like, “Cool.” And he just went back to his meal like it’s no big deal.
So they didn’t know about me, I didn’t know about them. And I remember I went in for the game and met people for the first time. Mike Murphy is the coach. He’s putting the lines on the board and he goes, “Berezin, Sundin and whatever, first line.” Second line he goes, “17 Wendel Clark.” And Wendel is a hero in Toronto. “11, Steve Sullivan,” and then he put my number 20. Like, I was playing with Wendel Clark in my first game! It was wild.
We played in Tampa, we won, I got an assist. I got cut for 12 stitches right above my eye here. It was definitely an eventful night. And then I guess I was off and running.
Was it hard to play in a hockey hotbed like Toronto, with all the media scrutiny? And how does it compare to Montreal, which is equally passionate about hockey?
So it wasn’t hard. I quite liked it. I was sort of overachieving and most of the reaction I got was positive. I rarely felt a sting of criticism like my mom would. My parents would listen to talk radio and my mom would call and tell me she heard I’m not going to be on the power play tomorrow night.
I’m like, “Who said that, mom?” She says, “It was Steve from Scarborough.” I’m like, “I don’t know if Steve’s the coach, mom.”
As athletes, you kind of deal with it, but I think your families have a harder time dealing with those sorts of things because it’s more unsettling for them. But I didn’t mind it. It was all kinds of fun for me. I loved playing there. I love living there. My friends and my family and my sister, like they all loved me playing for the Leafs as well. We all kind of cashed in as much as we could, whether it’s restaurants or bars or whatever it might be. So no complaints about that.
But when it came to Montreal, I played later in Montreal, 10 years later in my career, and I tell people all the time Montreal is far more intense than Toronto. Far more. It’s not as many English media compared to Toronto, but when you combine the English and the French, there was more.
In Toronto, when things got negative for players, they almost exclusively were negative about on the ice stuff. Whereas Montreal, I don’t know if it’s the competition or the tenor of the media, it sometimes felt a little bit different. Like not just strictly on ice stuff, which could be challenging.
Again, they were very good to me and I had no problem with the media there. I loved playing in Montreal. I wanted to play longer. They didn’t want me around any longer, unfortunately. But I did feel Montreal is probably more intense.
Now that you’re part of the media, how has your playing career affected you as a broadcaster in trying to be as honest and fair as you can?
My philosophy has always been if I say it on air, I would say it to your face. And if I said it to your face, I would be able to support the reasons why I said it. You might not agree with my reason, but I would have reasons that I could articulate to you. And I’ve had several pointed discussions in dressing rooms over the years where people, players that I played with, former teammates, would disagree with what I said or were mad at me for saying something. You kinda get over it because it’s your job to be fair and offer observations.
You broke into the NHL in the mid-90s. How has the game changed since then? And is it better now or worse?
There’s no doubt it’s a thousand times better, faster, more skilled, harder shooting. I mean, I retired 13 years ago and I was a good skater. I watch between the benches now and it is incomprehensibly fast. I’m like, I don’t know how I played because I didn’t play in this. It’s just so, so much faster.
It’s way better, and anyone who suggests otherwise, it’s counterintuitive to human nature. Like everyone’s always getting better, right? That’s just how it goes. So the guys that play now are much better than the guys who played 10 years ago, who are much better than guys who played 20 years ago. It’s just the reality of the evolution of sports.
It’s interesting because usually our instinct is to protect the era we came from.
Right. And everybody I’ve talked to says it’s all better now compared to when we played, but the problem with that conversation? Wayne Gretzky is my guy. He actually coached me, but Gretz was my guy growing up. Like he’s the greatest of all time if you look at his numbers.
If you plunk Connor McDavid right into 1985, he might score 300 points. He might score 150 goals honestly, with his technology and his training. And if you teleported Gretz into today’s game from the 1985 version, he would not get 200 points. He might get 100. But if you put Gretz in today’s game with today’s training and today’s technology, that’s a different kind of conversation. He would still be great and as good as there is.
But the way Matthews can shoot it or the way McDavid can skate and stick handle, we’ve never seen anything like it… ever.
I have to ask, what was Gretzky like to play for as a coach?
Yeah, it was fascinating. I was in Arizona for six years and he’d been around the organization, but not too hands on. So he comes back out of the lockout, he’s going to coach. And it’s a big deal for somebody like me. I grew up on his “Hockey My Way” video and had his sticks and cards and all that stuff, and now he’s your coach.
And it’s funny because the first month you’re like, “Oh, it’s Gretz! It’s Gretz! It’s the coolest. But the second he takes you off the first line, he’s just another dumb coach that doesn’t like you. It’s amazing how quickly he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Except he’s the greatest of all time so he probably does. So he becomes your coach really quick.
The thing I respect most about Wayne: to jump in and coach is not easy. He’d never done it. It’s not something that you can just do and be great at. You have to practice it. But he was so invested in the games, which I love to see because you could see how that would have been his way when he played. He would scream and yell and swear, and he knew the cameras were on him, but he wasn’t trying to be passive and cool. He was into it. So yeah, it was pretty cool to have him around or be around him.
Let’s shift to some personal stuff and get to know Mike Johnson. Are you a family guy?
Yeah, two kids. One soon to be 19, one soon to be 17. One is in her first year at Queen’s University in the business program there. The other one is in 11th grade. Two daughters, never played hockey, never even put hockey equipment on in their life even once. They did other things but yeah, two daughters that are growing up too quickly.
Was the no hockey thing their idea or yours?
No, their mother was a borderline professional skier. So once we had daughters, it was a skiing family. They did that in the winter and then played soccer. And my younger one now plays volleyball pretty seriously. I think it’s probably for the best, hearing some of the stories that hockey parents have. I’m sure I would’ve been involved in coaching and everything else. So it probably made for a less stressful life, not being involved in youth hockey.
I assume you’re living in the Toronto area close to TSN?
Yeah, I live in North Toronto, in the city. I’ve been there for a long time. It’s funny to say it’s close to TSN. I mean, I grew up in Scarborough, which is where TSN is. I used to work at the Bick’s Pickle Factory across the highway from the TSN Studios. In high school, I used to ride my bike there to work. So I know that area well but now I live in North Toronto.
I need to know more about this Bick’s pickle job.
Well, my dad worked at Robin Hood Multifoods, which owned Bick’s. So my job was working outside and pushing cucumbers around, making pickles. It was not glamorous, but it was outside in the tank farm where the pickles are made. You clean out the bins they’re made in or set up the bins so they can get the brine juice on them. Just sort of manual labor outside the pickle factory. You stank badly by the end of the day. It was not a good look.
How did that go in the hockey dressing room? In those days, it didn’t take much for nicknames to stick and if you are rolling into the dressing room smelling like pickles…
That’s a good question. Now the thing is, I didn’t really play hockey seriously in high school. So I wasn’t around the dressing rooms. I played basketball every day in high school. I didn’t really play hockey very much. And this job was in the summer and I never in my life played hockey in the summer once until I got to university. I never even thought about it.
Pickle crisis averted. Do you have a favourite childhood hockey memory?
I would say I have two. When I was maybe 10 years old, I played for the Toronto Marlies organization and once a month we were allowed to practice at Maple Leaf Gardens at like 8am on a Saturday. So it was before the Leafs morning skate and then the Toronto Marlies Junior game at 1pm. And I remember my dad driving us down from Scarborough and we’d park somewhere near the Gardens. It’d be like 6:30 in the morning in the dark, and we’d walk in. We’d get on there before the lights were even on and you’d be running around the bottom of the Gardens, finding the wrestling rings, and then going on the ice.
And occasionally (former Leaf) Bill Derlago would come out and skate with us. And I got to race Bill Derlago when I was 10 years old and he was nice enough to let me win. I remember those kinds of moments around the rink with my dad. For sure it was one of my better hockey moments growing up.
And the other one is as a fan. I was 12 years old. I was at the 1987 Canada Cup in Hamilton, Game 2 overtime, again with my dad. And I had great seats right beside the Canadian bench. I don’t know how we got them, but we had them. And I was just staring at all the players.
And to this day, I joke to Paul Coffey, I liked him then, but he kind of became one of my favourite players. I noticed he didn’t wear socks underneath his skates, so I didn’t wear socks under my skates for years. And then I noticed he taped his ankles when he skated. So to this day, I tape my ankles when I skate because of that game and that moment watching him.
And of course, Canada won in overtime and then won in the third game. So those were some pretty special moments growing up where hockey sort of stuck with me.
Over 35 years later, Mike Johnson’s faithful viewers are glad it did.