Ryan Johnston was a good, but not great, OHL prospect when he was selected in the 10th round of the 2008 junior hockey entry draft by the Kitchener Rangers.
Yet it is the 24 year-old Sudbury native, now with three games under his belt with the Montreal Canadiens, who is busy preparing for his second main NHL training camp, and not the vast majority of the 200 or so players taken before him eight years ago.
My, how things have changed.
The NHL was still a faraway dream for Johnston as recently as a year ago, when he travelled to a Canadiens development camp at the conclusion of his junior season with the Colgate Raiders of the NCAA. Before long, the myst of the dream was clearing, giving way to a concrete and tangible goal for the fifth in the talented sextet of Johnston siblings.
“I was at the development camp, up against some of the top draft picks from the past four to five years,” recalled the smooth-skating 5’10” defenceman. “I thought I was playing with speed. I thought I was on par or surpassing a lot of people that were at camp.”
Apparently he was. At the conclusion of camp, Johnston was inked to a two way contract with the Habs. “The main camp is a little different,” Johnston noted. “You could start the see the actual skill level of NHL players. But after that first week, I thought that I could definitely play here.”
Overcoming an injury that limited him to 37 games played in his first year in the pros with the St John’s Ice Caps, Johnston earned a late season call-up to the big club. The experience created a whole new mindset as he returned to Northern Ontario in early spring.
“I had my exit meeting with the coaches, and with (Montreal GM) Marc Bergevin, and they had some good things to say, but obviously, there’s a lot of stuff I need to improve on defensively,” said Johnston. “Ever since I reached college, I’ve understood that even for an offensive defenceman, you have to have a strong defensive game, or you’re not going to make it anywhere.”
“Offensively, I have to make sure I show it every single time I go out there,” Johnston added. “They might as well have a 6’6” 250 pound defenceman out there if I’m not going to contribute the way I am supposed to.”
It is that kind of focus that in many ways has defined the Johnston brood. As with most young athletes, parental feedback was a constant at the home of the Johnston’s. Somehow, Bob and Colleen (Johnston) absolutely nailed it.
“My father was always hard on us, in the sense that he always wanted us to work as hard as we could,” Ryan stated. “When I got to a certain age, I remember him saying that working hard was not going to be enough if you wanted to reach the next level.”
“You can’t just work as hard as everyone else, you had to work harder than them, spend more hours at the gym, spend more time on the ice, do the things that 99.9% of the population would not be willing to do.”
“That was kind of the attitude that my dad and my mom would bring to everything – school, work or anything,” said Johnston. Finding a way to deliver that message, while not straying across the line, into the realm of the “crazy hockey parent”, is no small feat.
“There’s obviously times when I would have an early morning workout, and I would hate him for the hour and a half,” Johnston stated with a smile, underlining the appreciation that comes with an understanding of the end goal to the challenge.
“Afterwards, though, there was an inner pride that you would feel in knowing that you did “x” amount of hill runs.” It is clear, from the conversation at hand, that Ryan Johnston is more than comfortable with his belief that support, on the home front, was always well balanced.
“It’s definitely a fine line on how much you want to push your kid, and how much you want to just nurture them and make sure they are happy,” he said. “In terms of our family, we had our hockey season, and then in the summer, we hardly ever touched hockey.”
“It would be soccer, track and field, basketball. When hockey season rolled around, we were completely focused on it.” There is a maturity, these days, to Johnston’s perspective on hockey that, by his own admission, might not always have been present.
“Before college, I was always kind of a skill guy, and didn’t necessarily have to work as hard,” he said. “I could kind of rely on a little bit of niftiness here and there, pass the puck when need be. As soon as I reached college, I realized that it doesn’t work with skill alone. You need to have that work ethic, that drive to want to be better.”
“There are a lot of people in the NHL who are there based mostly on their pure work ethic,” Johnston continued. “They’ve stayed there because they do their jobs, do what they need to do.” They are those players who were not necessarily at the top at the list, at the tender age of sixteen, when the OHL first came a calling.