March 15, 2006
Get to Know Jack

By James Jahnke


Michigan freshman Jack Johnson

National TV Schedule

Perhaps no one in college hockey this year has been more polarizing than Jack Johnson, Michigan’s immensely gifted freshman defenseman. And that includes Senor Kessel out in Gopherland.

Johnson is almost universally hated by opposing fans, tiny CCHA forwards and the entire nation of Canada for his brutally physical style of play. But because of that very physicality, he’s adored by his teammates, the Yost Arena faithful and the hundreds of pro scouts who have watched him play the past few years. Those admirers no doubt enjoy his effortless skating, booming shot and humble nature, too.

Johnson, who was picked No. 3 overall in last summer’s NHL draft by Carolina, has scored nearly a point per game during his first season at Michigan (10 goals, 22 assists in 35 games). That’s a greater output than any other true defenseman in the league, and the second-most among CCHA rookies at any position.

But then you have to consider his mind-blowing 143 penalty minutes, more than double anyone else on the Wolverines. He’s been kicked out of several games for major penalties, and had to sit out another contest as a suspension for receiving a game disqualification. Some fans have labeled Johnson as a dirty player. Others think he’s just playing a professional-style game within the less-physical nature of college hockey. Speculation abounds that Johnson will be a pro within the next month, anyway, but he says that isn’t on his mind. Not with a CCHA semifinal against archrival Michigan State on tap for Friday.

INCH chatted with Johnson for a few minutes before one of Michigan’s practices this week. Here’s what he had to say:

CCHA Semifinal Capsules

No. 1 Miami
25-7-4 (20-6-2 CCHA)

RedHawk note: Eight players from the state of Michigan are on Miami’s roster, the most of any state or province. In that octet are star defenseman Andy Greene and freshman blueliner Alec Martinez, who scored the first three goals of his career last weekend, including the last goal in Goggin Ice Arena history, Saturday’s overtime winner.

How Miami wins: Even though Oxford is much closer geographically to Detroit than Marquette is, we reckon Miami will have the fewest fans at the Joe. So that calls for the RedHawks to play like they’re the road team. Objective No. 1 will be to protect the goalie, Charlie Effinger on Friday and Jeff Zatkoff on Saturday. From there, look for a simple game from the RedHawks – out of the zone, over the red line, into the zone – until opening it up in the third period, if necessary.

No. 2 Michigan State
Record: 22-11-8 (14-7-7 CCHA)

Spartan note: The team got a bad draw when CBS decided that the MSU hoopsters would tip off their first NCAA Tournament game at 7:10 p.m. Friday, or about an hour before the hockey game starts. That should cut into the usually significant green-and-white attendance.

How MSU wins: MSU hasn’t lost in its last seven games against Michigan, but it hasn’t won much, either (2-0-5). There will be a winner Friday night, but how long that will take to determine is anybody’s guess. Thus, the Spartans will have to play a smart game and not give up any bad goals that could decide a tight game. The overall weekend goal will be to resurrect the offense of games 2 and 3 against Alaska Fairbanks (13 goals) and bury that of Game 1 (one goal). The defense and Jeff Lerg must tighten up, too, as Miami, Michigan and NMU are far more potent that UAF was.

No. 3 Michigan
Record: 20-13-5 (13-10-5 CCHA)

Wolverine note: If you can believe it, last week’s first-round dusting of Ferris State was Michigan’s first sweep of 2006. The last time they were allowed to sing “The Victors” in the postgame locker room was after sweeping visiting Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 9-10.

How Michigan wins: We said it last week, and we’ll say it again: Goaltending. Noah Ruden was serviceable against Ferris State, but must be several notches better this weekend. The Wolverines are younger and more inexperienced than their three counterparts, so early success could do a lot for their psyches. The team is still searching for genuine confidence.

No. 4 Northern Michigan
Record: 22-14-2 (14-12-2)

Wildcat note: The Wildcats’ current six-game winning streak is the longest of coach Walt Kyle’s four-year tenure. Northern also has won eight of its last 10 games.

How NMU wins: The biggest long shot in the field is also the hottest team. Northern’s veteran bunch finally seemed to get on the same page about a month ago, and the newfound cooperation has been evident at both ends of the ice. Of course, most of the recent success occurred at the Berry Events Center, so it will be interesting to see how NMU reacts to the distant locale and smaller ice. Logic dictates that goalie Bill Zaniboni will be in the spotlight, but the bigger issue might be at the other end of the rink. If the Wildcats can score four or so goals, as they’ve been doing lately, they will be a tough out.

Inside College Hockey: First of all, congratulations on scoring the series-winning goal against Ferris State last week. Tell us about that.
Jack Johnson: It was a great feed from T.J. Hensick right at the top, so it was hard not to score on a play like that. I was just so excited and happy to make the fans go crazy and score one for the team.

INCH: Everybody kind of figured you would step in and be successful this year, but how has the season gone, relative to your expectations?
JJ: It’s definitely exceeded them. I wanted to be a contributor for the team and not be a liability out there. I wanted to be trusted to be on the ice in important situations. The players around me are great players, so that helps.

INCH: Are you just being modest? I think most people expected you to do more than just not be a liability out there.
JJ: That’s all I was trying for right off the bat. But my defensive partner, Matt Hunwick, is so good, he just makes life easy. And then I’m out there with other guys like Andrew Cogliano, and they’re all pretty good.

INCH: And you’ve endeared yourself to the Yost crowd.
JJ: Yeah, that’s fun. It makes the game fun. They’ll start up a chant about me, and it gives us a little laughter on the bench.

INCH: Do you hear everything they say?
JJ: Yeah, most of the time.

INCH: What about on the road, when everybody’s yelling at you?
JJ: Oh, definitely.

INCH: Is that hard on you? You’re probably the biggest villain on the ice whenever you go on the road.
JJ: It’s kind of ... I guess it’s kind of a goal of mine. I expect everybody to be cheering against me. That means I’m a good player. You don’t want to go play two games somewhere and not have anyone realize that I was even out there. I want to be an impact player. If I have a big hit, and the boos start, I just laugh at it. It’s something I expect.

INCH: Do you regret anything you’ve done this year? Any of the hits you’ve made?
JJ: No.

INCH: You don’t think you have to rein in your aggressiveness? College hockey isn’t necessarily as physical as the pros, or even juniors.
JJ: I definitely don’t want to rein in my aggressiveness. Many coaches have told me it’s a blessing. It’s a lot easier to calm someone down than to try to make them aggressive. I look at it as more of an asset to me.

INCH: I assume you’re excited about this weekend. Tell us what you expect out of Michigan State.
JJ: I expect it to be like the past four (MSU is 1-0-3 in the season series). Both teams will be ready to go, and we’ll have to play well for 60 minutes – or more with some overtimes.

INCH: Do you guys feel like you have a lot riding on the weekend? Or are you pretty secure with your standing?
JJ: We know we’re probably somewhat secure for the NCAAs, but we expect to win the CCHA Tournament. That’s a goal of ours.

INCH: Is there anything specific about Michigan State that stands out to you?
JJ: We know they’re a good defensive team, so if we can find a way to score some goals, we should be OK.

INCH: But you could say that about any team in the CCHA. Is there a specific MSU scouting report?
JJ: No, not really. They’re big and strong ... and usually, teams go into a defensive shell against us, so we know it will be a close game.

INCH: Being from New York, do you feel strongly about the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry yet? Sometimes it’s tough for somebody who doesn’t grow up around it.
JJ: They’re definitely our main rivals, just because of the tradition and everything. I think its one of the best rivalries around. My mom is a Michigan grad, and my dad (Jack Sr.) is a Spartan. He played hockey there.

INCH: He didn’t have a problem with you going to Michigan?
JJ: No, he told me to go to Michigan.

INCH: Why?
JJ: I can’t give straight answers to that, he just said it would be best.

INCH: Most people believe this will be your only year at Michigan. What do you say to that?
JJ: I’m just having fun right now, and I’m going to take it one year at a time. I’m at Michigan right now and having fun, so that’s about it.

INCH: You heard the “three more years” chants at Yost last weekend, right?
JJ: Yes. That was well-appreciated. It makes me feel good to have the fans in my corner.

INCH: With some of the struggles you guys have had this year, has it been a frustrating season?
JJ: When you can’t hold one-goal leads, it’s frustrating for anyone, not just Michigan. But we held a one-goal lead Saturday and got the win, so I really think we’ve turned it around. We’ve been using the analogy of a snowball rolling downhill. There’s only a few games left to have a good season, starting Friday.