As an assistant coach with the Oilers, Jim Johnson has a front row seat to the start of franchise rookie center Connor McDavid's career.
Nearly 30 years ago, Johnson had a front row seat to early years of center Mario Lemieux's career with the Penguins.
Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth in 1985, Johnson spent parts of five seasons with the Penguins. As a defensive defenseman, Johnson played in 390 games, ninth-most in franchise history among defensemen, and scored 109 points.
After retiring as a player in the late 1990s, Johnson embarked on a coaching career which has taken him all over North America and even Europe at times. Having spent the previous three seasons with the Sharks under head coach Todd McLellan, he joined the Oilers after McLellan was fired in San Jose and hired in Edmonton.
Recently, Johnson, 53, talked about his time with the Penguins, his own struggles with concussions and his coaching career.
You joined the Penguins as a college free agent and played in the NHL almost immediately. How rare or common was that compared to today?
“It wasn't rare. It was a time when a lot of college free agents were signing. I just happened to be an undrafted college free agent that played my four years and had an opportunity to play in the [IIHF World Championship Tournament in 1985] right after I graduated. I had some teams prior to that year, my junior year, try signing me. I wanted to get my education and go back to school and finish that up. Had a lot of opportunities to sign with many teams. It was just a great fit to sign with Pittsburgh. Playing with [defenseman] Moe Mantha at the time. Talked to [general] manager Eddie Johnston at length. I liked the direction Pittsburgh was going and it gave me a great opportunity to step into the National Hockey League and play."
That was relatively early in Mario Lemieux's career. How much did his presence sway your decision to join the Penguins?
"They had a lot of great players. I was fortunate to play with Mario early in his career, early in my career in the National Hockey League. He was a rookie the year before I came in and was a rookie. It was a great opportunity to play with a marquee player. Not only a marquee player but a quality person. A great teammate. That was one of the reasons but also my defensive partner was as a Pittsburgh Penguin at the time, Moe Mantha (right), when I played over in the World Championships. So that was another determining factor. We had a pretty good rapport playing together."
You went through quite a few coaches during your time with the Penguins. Did any in particular stand out?
"I think I was impacted with every coach that came through there in Pittsburgh in some form or fashion of their style of coaching. I look at my first coaches, [head coach] Bob Berry and [assistant coach] Jimmy Roberts … were huge influences on me and my career not only as playing but it also developed a burning passion for coaching. I thought Bob Johnson was another one of those guys who stood out for me with his positive attitude and the way he was every day. To me, he was one of the ultimate teachers of the game. And the way he taught was a real breath of fresh air."
You were traded to the Minnesota North Stars in 1990-91. How strange was it playing the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final that season?
"Obviously, for me it was disappointing because you sensed how close we were [to winning the Stanley Cup]. … For me, it was leaving a team and a group of guys that I came into the league with. We kind of grew together. I remember at the time when they traded me, it was going back to my hometown of Minneapolis but I was disappointed to be leaving because we had such a great group of guys. I was going from a real strong powerhouse team that was on the verge of something special. And you're going to a team that at the time was last in the league. It was a difficult transition for me but we ended up turning it around that year in Minnesota and ended up playing Pittsburgh in the [Stanley Cup Final] that year which was really strange for me after playing close to 400 games for the Penguins in the first part of my career. So that was a strange playoff for me."
Later in your career, you joined the Coyotes as a free agent and were part of their first season in Phoenix. What was that like playing in a new and very nontraditional hockey market?
"I had the opportunity to go down there. Their general manager was a former teammate of mine that signed me, Bobby Smith. They were building a team that moved basically from Winnipeg to [Phoenix] which was interesting because I wasn't a guy that didn't like heat. But my wife and I went down after signing the contract to check it out. We actually fell in love with the desert, the dry heat of it. We had a real good team that first year. We went to the playoffs that year. We ended up losing [in] seven games to the Ducks. It was the birth of hockey in the non-traditional market of Phoenix which is a large market. We had great support down there. … The hockey fans in Phoenix are passionate. They're usually from the Midwest area and they supported us real well there when we played at U.S. Airways Arena."
You retired as a result of concussions. Do you still have any issues with those injuries?
"I do not. It was a long recovery. It was an unfortunate thing. It was before we knew a lot about them. It was [hall-of-fame center] Pat Lafontaine, myself I think that went out, a couple of other guys. It was a long recovery process. I kept playing with them. I kept getting hit in games because I was never fully recovered. We didn't know a whole lot about them. I ended up getting three concussions in about three weeks. I took a long time to recover. It was the old mentality that you play through anything. Unfortunately, I hurt my own career by not understanding more about the effects, the damaging effects about them. I ended up retiring [after 1998-99]. That season was my last. I was still under contract but I didn't play that year due to the effects of the concussion."
What was your entry into coaching after retiring as a player?
"I was coaching when I was playing in college actually. I was coaching in the summers with the U.S. National Development Program. … I worked in the summers with their kids in the national [tournaments], the national festivals. I did a lot of that stuff almost every summer. I worked in the game as a coach even when I was playing. I thought it always helped become a better player. I spent a lot of time in the developing aspect of players and player development really when I was playing. So I had a burning desire when I was playing about the coaching side of things. Having the chance to work with guys like [assistant coach] Barry Smith when he was coaching in Pittsburgh, I realized the passion Barry had for his players was something that really rubbed off on me.
I knew right away early on that I was probably going to look at that direction. I really had an opportunity to stick around and be with [former Coyotes coach] Bob Francis when I retired in Phoenix and was able to go in as an interim [assistant] coach there. I worked with USA Hockey for four years for the [IIHF World Junior Championship tournament] team. I developed a real passion for coaching working with elite players and that's where my career coaching took off."
You served as an assistant coach with the Lightning in 2009-10. How did you get hooked up with that organization?
"I was asked to come in and help out and work as like a development coach and an associate coach [with the AHL affiliate] in Norfolk. I kept turning down opportunities because I really wanted to spend spend time with my family. We were fortunate enough to raise our kids in Scottsdale [Ariz.] and I wanted to be around a little bit. I wasn't around a lot as a player. … So I wanted to spend a little more time with my kids. I kept turning down opportunities to return back to the game in the National Hockey League. But I kept involved with USA Hockey with a lot of different camps and clinics and models we were working on.
It was just a stopgap. I kept turning down opportunities to return and I finally said it's getting to that time if I keep turning them down, they're going to stop asking. I knew eventually where I wanted to end up. But I just wanted to spent a little more time raising my son and daughter that were in formative ages in their development. I was able to coach his team and work on a project with USA Hockey. So I was really immersed in hockey from the day I retired [as a player] until right now."
You spent part of the 2011-12 season as an assistant coach with the Capitals under head coach Dale Hunter (right).
"It was good. They had an ownership change in Tampa and I went to over to Lugano, Switzerland and with Barry Smith and coached [there]. Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau in Washington. He called and asked if I would return [to North America]. So I came back from Lugano and coached in Washington that year. Then I had the real privilege to join Todd McLellan in San Jose and I've with Todd every since. He's a wonderful coach and a wonderful human being."
How did you get connected with Todd McLellan and the Sharks?
"We coached against each other when I was coaching in Washington. I had an opportunity. They were making a change there. I made contact with Todd. I never met Todd [before]. I went in and talked to Todd and [general manager] Doug Wilson and was offered the position. It was probably the best move that I made. When I sat down, I knew right away that we had the same passion and same kind of philosophies of the game and how the game should be played and how you coach today's players. It was a great fit for me. I saw it right away. Just his level of professionalism. The way he is with the players, there's a lot of similarities. What I really like is he's not only a wonderful head coach, he's a really solid human being. A great family guy and for me, it's been a real breath of fresh air."
After he got fired by the Sharks this past offseason and was hired by the Oilers, it probably wasn't a difficult decision to join him.
"I didn't have to think too long and hard about it. Obviously, he had to put together a staff. I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I was talking to other teams at the time and was hopeful if something didn't work out, I [would be] able to join [McLellan]. Happy to be here in Edmonton.We've got our work cut out for us but we're seeing progress. I like the progress we've seen with the team. We just haven't had the results we've hoped for yet. But I think the results will come if we continue to do the right things and guys are playing the right way."
With players like Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall and others, does it feel like you're at the ground floor of something special in Edmonton?
"It reminds me a lot of my first couple of years as a player in Pittsburgh. We had a lot of potential, a lot of young talent. But we had to learn how to win and what it took to win. And how you had to have that compete, that passion, the effort, the details to your game. It's very similar to my first couple of years of playing in Pittsburgh. I think the future is bright."
What are your career goals? Do you want to be a head coach or are you content as an assistant coach?
"I think you're in coaching to be at the best level and as high as you can possibly get. I'm content being right where I'm at right now. I think everybody that coaches has some aspirations to be a head coach. I enjoyed my time as a head coach in the American Hockey League. But I'm really enjoying my time as an assistant working under I think one of the best coaches I've been around in the National Hockey League. As long as this situation presents itself, I'm content to continue to learn and develop my coaching resume under Todd McLellan. If it it ever presented itself, it's definitely something I would look at. But when you're in the situation that I'm in with with what I feel is one of the best coaches in the game, it's a great situation."
(Photos: Elsa Hasch/Allsport, Marianne Helm/Getty Images, Christian Petersen/Getty Images and Penguins Hockey Cards)