Jack Johnson comes to us in various forms. First, there is Jack Johnson, the player. The player is the one we see on the ice who wears number 3 and we listen and read about in interviews. Then, there is the “father”, that is Jack Johnson’s father who coincidentally is also named Jack Johnson. The third is an internet personality who posts on message boards. He claims to be Jack Johnson’s best friend, has posted photos with Jack and discussed Jack’s opinions & adventures on websites. You can find this on-line spirit on forums such as letsgokings and hfboards, among others. This holy hockey trinity of the father, son and internet spirit comprise of the Jack Johnson that we love, like a little, try to understand and hope to one day blossom into a defensively responsible and offensively productive fixture on the Los Angeles Kings’ blue line.
Unfortunately however, Jack Johnson’s (the player’s) career with the Kings has seen its share of melodrama, rumors and controversy. We should not be surprised by same considering that Jack’s trade to the Kings followed his refusal to join the Carolina Hurricanes (a catalyst to the trade) because he wanted to play another season at Michigan. Perhaps we should be even less surprised that Jack’s current drama is about his playing days at Michigan and his former coach, Red Berenson.
The full extent of the article from which I reference Dean Lombardi’s quotes can be found on the frozenroyalty.net blog here. I have skipped the editorial comments and fill by the author and focused on the quotes. Dean told the interviewer:
“This guy has never had any coaching [at the University of Michigan]. Jack just did what he wanted. Michigan is the worst. For hockey people, if you’ve got a choice between a kid—all things being equal—one’s going to Michigan and one’s going to Boston University, you all want your player [going to Boston University]. Michigan’s players—[head coach] Red [Berenson] doesn’t coach. It’s ‘do what you want.’ He gets the best players in the country.”
Nothing stated above was an insult to Jack Johnson. The reason I use the word “insult” will become clear later. To state that Jack Johnson never had any coaching is akin to stating that he had no direction. He was given free reign because he was, as Dean points out, talented and within the category of what Dean labels one of “the best players in the country.”
Dean then continues,
“Jack was a thoroughbred out there. But he was all over the place. He was awful as a hockey player. As an athlete, you’re going, wow! Look at the way he skates, shoots, he can pass. But he had no idea where he was going.”
One of the key statements that has lit this emotional flame are “he was awful as a hockey player.” Notice first that Dean uses the word “was”. ”Was” is past tense, as in “used to be” and this past reference points to Jack’s playing days while at Michigan. Further, Dean’s words were “as a hockey player.” That is not the same as stating “he was an awful hockey player.” The words “as a” expresses a role, which I believe Dean specifically implied to be a “defenseman.” This is made clear by his later quote, below. Let’s use a thoroughbred as an example, since Dean compares Jack to one, figuratively speaking of course. A thoroughbred can be utilized “as a” racing horse, for show jumping, polo, dressage (competitive horse training) or fox hunting. Thoroughbreds are known for their raw and natural agility, speed and spirit. Dean Lombardi tells us that Jack Johnson is known for his athleticism, which he exclaims with a “wow”, as well as his “skating”, “shooting” and “passing.” A compliment? Even to the most cynical mind, yes.
Dean goes on to state that,
“[a]t times, he was playing forward at Michigan. You had no idea what position he was playing. But he had always been the star and he always got his numbers.”
Lombardi explains that despite his “rover” status, Jack still flourished. A rover however does not fit into the NHL model, not in any real star capacity. Players have roles and exceptional players play their roles exceptionally.
“Then he turns pro and for the first time, we’re telling him ‘whoa, just make the first pass and learn to play in your own end.’ How about making a read in your own end about the right guy to pick up? He was awful.”
So Jack’s status becomes that of a professional hockey player but, due to his training (or lack thereof) at Michigan, he hasn’t mastered the fundamentals of playing defense – his “role.” We saw first hand and know through personal knowledge the truth of Dean’s words. Jack Johnson, with all the skating, passing and shooting ability that defined his potential, struggled at the simple plays, nearly all of them in the defensive zone. His hockey game was checkers, not chess, built on speed and a straight line that permeated through his experience as an end to end magician with the puck. The NHL however is not made of magic. It is made of big, mean and talented veterans that plant you on your behind when you take unnecessary risks with the puck. Hockey players are built of steel and fly with force, not feathered wings.
That brings us again to the word “awful,” the second time Dean used it within a sentence and twice preceded with “was” but also preceded with the context in which Jack was awful – the fundamentals of playing defense at a professional level in the NHL. Nowhere does Lombardi state that Jack was a bad hockey player. Rather, he limits the word to his play in limited capacities – certain aspects of playing defense such as “making the first pass.”
“It was a big risk for us to trade for him. There was all that hype and stuff because he’s just like a thoroughbred. It’s like looking at a horse and saying wow! But then he gets on the track and he has no clue how to run the race. He might even run in the wrong direction. That was Jack. [He was] really raw.”
Everything stated in this quote is a confirmation of Dean’s previous statement – Jack was skilled, Jack had innate talent, watch Jack skate, watch Jack shoot, but what he lacked was proper training to apply that talent to his role and learn how to be a professional hockey defenseman.
“Here again, you’ve got a kid who’s got to change his game and he can change a game, going end-to-end, getting you out of your own end. It was like, ‘you’re not good enough at that not to do these other things that you’ve never done.’”
So Jack had to adapt and grow as a player to fit the NHL style. Jack was not fundamentally sound enough yet to play fast and loose. This is highlighted by Dean’s reference to “other things that you’ve never done.”
“Now try and convince him of that after [he has] been told how great [he is throughout his] life, [he has] played in the US Development Program, [he was] at Michigan, everything [was] great, great, great. Now [he is] in the pros and it’s ‘what do you mean? I’m Jack Johnson.’”
The quotes here lose some translation due to the interviewer’s overly liberal use of the bracket. Assuming the brackets do not take away from context and content, this quote implies that an ego was at play. Say it isn’t so – was anyone at anytime under the misunderstanding that professional athletes don’t have enormous egos? In Jack’s case, his was large enough to tell the general manage (Jim Rutherford) who drafted him third overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft that he wasn’t going to play for the Hurricanes. Jack came into the NHL with colossal confidence that shined in his eyes and swelled from every smirk and which, not so coincidentally, was one very specific reason Dean traded for him – a tiger that needed to be taught (not tamed) with all the potential in the world.
“He struggled with it. ‘What do you mean, you’re criticizing me?’ Yeah, [I am]. When these kids come up now, this might seem totally abnormal to you, because anyone else growing up probably got slapped around [figuratively speaking] as you were learning your career or anything you’re learning. But these kids are all told how great they are.”
So the younger generation of hockey players are more cocky, less humble and have a larger sense of self and entitlement than the veterans did when the latter entered the league. In other words, they are a reflection of society and each generation’s evolution.
“He didn’t start believing that [he] might have to start doing this until the middle of last season.”
A direct compliment to Jack – Dean tells us that the message sunk in. What he didn’t understand in the beginning, he now understood.
“[Kings head coach Terry Murray, also known as Murph] is a great teacher. Thank God for Murph. He was really a smart player, nowhere near as talented. [He told Jack to] slow down and take it a step at a time. Slowly, he’s gotten better. He’s certainly had his ups and downs. But that’s why he made the Olympic team, because this guy is hard to play against.”
More compliments showered upon Jack Johnson. He listened to his coach. He progressed. It wasn’t always easy but he has already reaped the rewards through his Olympic selection.
“What’s good about it was that [Johnson] was eleventh on the depth chart at the beginning of the year. By November, he had risen to the top eight, and in Jack’s case, he went from ten to eight, to seven.”
He has only gotten better, not just in the eyes of the Olympics but in Dean’s as well. Jack Johnson is more important to the Kings today than he was when he first joined the team.
“Two weeks ago, at the [NHL] Board of Governors meeting, [we met] and I couldn’t promote my own guy, so the other guys would come in—it was out of my hands. [Johnson] was in the top six on everybody’s ballot. I was really proud of him.”
The words “I was really proud of him” are critical to understanding Dean’s mindset and the context within which his words are spoken. He did not say, “good for him.” He linked Jack’s accomplishments to a sense of Dean’s own pride, akin to what a person would do when he cares for the other.
“Jack Johnson, three years ago, was all highlight film stuff. But the trouble is, the highlight film stuff was only once every three games. In between, it was all fire drills. [He just had to] simplify [his game]. No highlights. The highlights will come back once you start to simplify.”
Dean expands on his earlier statements. Walk before you run, run before you race.
“For him to transition from highlight film to doing all this other stuff, you’re not getting that high-end stuff right now while he’s learning. But you’re hoping the [solid defensive play] becomes second nature. He still has to think about it. But when that becomes second nature, now recognize when you can put on your show.”
It’s a constant learning process. Anyone disagree? Hockey mirrors life.
“It’s still a work in progress. I’ve had a lot of young defensemen. They’re always hard to break in anyway. He’s been unique because, like I said, he was a thoroughbred who just ran.”
Lombardi only compared Jack to his other younger defensemen in one respect – defensemen generally take longer to develop. He then immediately distinguished Jack from the others with an enormous acclaim – Jack was a “unique” talent.
“I think his learning curve is going to continue to go up. It hasn’t spiked. I think every area of his game has improved, but it has to continue.”
Do these words need an explanation? He presents Jack with approval and the utmost confidence.
So that leaves us with Jack’s response. For that, we go to the latimes.com article here. Take note of the title and the use of the word “irate” when describing Jack Johnson’s response. Helene Elliott’s use of that word is designed to condition her reader to interpret Jack’s statements with a sense of anger. Had the title read “Jack Johnson responds to GM Lombardi’s statements about him and Michigan,” would the article have had the same impact? But I digress. Let us go to the thoroughbred’s (read: horse’s) mouth.
“I’m a Michigan man. I’m very proud of it. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
On the surface, one reads this as a defense of Michigan. It is so much more however. The use of the words “I am a Michigan man” is a bold and self labeling statement akin to “I am an American” when confronted with an attack to national pride. What Jack misses is the past tense some of us wish he had used – that elusive word “was.” You see, Jack Johnson “was” a Michigan man. Since the trade to Los Angeles, he has been and “is a Los Angeles King.” If Jack defines his heart and mind, character and soul as that of the university he attended for two years and from which he did not graduate, rather than the team for which he has played and by which he will have been paid for three years in March of this year, then should Kings fans, management, coaches and players have concern? ”Who do you play for?” Herb Brooks asked his players that ultimately won the gold metal at Lake Placid when he wanted to pursue their sense of identity. Remember the answers before they found it. Remember them thereafter. Who do you play for Jack?
“Michigan has produced more NHL players than any other school. Even the U.S. development program, people rip that and they just don’t know anything about it and don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The first statement is one of fact. The second is one of pride and in defense of Michigan with an acknowledgment that Dean Lombardi is not alone in his criticism (as evident by the word “people”).
Referring to Red Berenson, Jack Johnson said that he “is one of the finest coaches and men that I’ve met.”
A sense of loyalty – to his former coach. Understandable.