OXFORD, Ohio – After sitting for the first two-thirds of his sophomore season, the opportunity to play again finally presented itself, and Carter Johnson took full advantage.
The 6-feet, 3-inch center dished out hits, played tight, physical defense and won faceoffs.
Johnson was looking to carry that momentum into his junior year, and for the first two periods, he did, scoring Miami’s first goal of the season.
But he suffered a head injury in that contest, and though he only missed three games, he never regained that form from the season prior.
Fortunately, Johnson, now a senior, is once again thriving in that unsexy but crucial role as one of the most physical forwards on the team and one of the RedHawks’ best defenders up front.
“I think confidence is a big thing for him as it is for anyone, but his confidence has been going up throughout the year,” senior captain Gordie Green said. “He’s been winning more draws, which is big-time for him to get into the lineup. That’s something that we’ve really been stressing all season, so he’s been doing really well at that and solidifying himself as that fourth center for us, which is big because it gives depth for us down the middle.”
Johnson’s transition to a defense-first and throw-the-body skater is in stark contrast to the role he played prior to joining the RedHawks.
Johnson grew up in Gimli, Man., the first known Manitoba-born player on a Miami roster.
Gimli, a town of 6,000 that is the home to Crown Royal’s distillery, is an hour north of Winnipeg and on the west side of massive Lake Winnipeg.
Hockey pulses through Johnson’s DNA. His maternal grandfather, Bob Leiter, played parts of 10 seasons in the NHL with Boston, Pittsburgh and Atlanta from 1962 to 1976, recording 224 points.
Johnson’s uncle also played professional hockey, and his 6-4 father Bryan Johnson was talented enough to play in the pros but did not pursue a career.
“Seeing the success that my grandfather had, hearing his stories, all the crazy things that went on, all the ins and outs of things, it’s kind of cool to hear from him and take his advice on things,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important to have an open mind and open ears around him because he’s always got something good to say when it comes to hockey.”
Leiter was a 5-feet, 9-inch, 164-pound playmaking center at the highest level, unlike Johnson, who weighs in at 210 pounds of solid muscle.
“I was fortunate enough to get some size from (my dad’s) side and hopefully some skill from my grandpa,” Johnson said.
In high school, Johnson was captain of his volleyball team and won the Manitoba prep badminton provincial championship in doubles.
He was able to play hockey in his home province until age 19, as he joined Swan Valley for juniors, a town six hours northwest of Gimli near the Saskatchewan border.
In 122 regular season games there, he scored 36 goals and dished for 49 assists, finishing third on the team in points his final season with 45.
It was his first time living away from home, and he credits Brad Flynn, an up-and-coming young coach at the time who is now an assistant for Red Deer of the WHL, for helping him transition to a high-level skater in that league.
“Most of the success I had post-Swan Valley was because of Brad,” Johnson said. “He gave me every opportunity there to find success and build my confidence, and I kind of took off from there.”
While there, he was linemates with Tristen Mullin, now a standout at Cornell, and the two have played against each other when their respective college teams have met.
Just before Johnson’s 20th birthday, he played his lone season of juniors in the United States, joining Corpus Christi along with two-year Swan Valley teammate goalie Graham Hunt and fellow Manitoba native Drake Lindsay.
It was quite a weather shock for Johnson, who transitioned from the extremely long winters of Western Canada to the non-existent ones in southern Texas.
“No winter, so that was kind of cool,” Johnson said. “It was different – I’m one for the snow and outdoor rinks, so I missed that, but there’s not much to complain about when you’re sitting on the Gulf of Mexico in mid-January.”
Lindsay and Johnson finished one-two in scoring on the team that season, as Johnson went 16-21-37.
“It was a unique experience, and I’m really happy I went down there,” Johnson said. “The hockey was great, the people were great, everything about that was exciting.”
While at Corpus Christi, former Miami assistant coach Brent Brekke met with Johnson and talked to him about coming to Oxford.
Johnson had talked to a couple other Division I programs previously, but Miami caught his attention.
“I got to see North Dakota growing up, and knowing I can play against them in this highly-competitive league…it was something that I wanted to take advantage of,” Johnson said. “After seeing this place, and just thinking that this could be (where I spend my) college career, it was a no-brainer.”
Johnson was thrown into the RedHawks’ lineup immediately and often, as he dressed for 35 of 36 games as a freshman.
“I knew they had a place for me to try to make an impact, but my role was even bigger than I expected, which was nice,” Johnson said. “The speed was definitely an adjustment at first, but once I got in the rhythm of things, I was really enjoying it. I was getting into the flow of the game, getting opportunities in areas that I didn’t expect like the power play.”
Johnson finished 2016-17 with no goals and three assists his freshman season, and found ice time much more difficult to come by in Season 2. With the addition of then-rookie forwards Phil Knies, Casey Gilling, Ben Lown, Austin Alger and Christian Mohs, Johnson dressed for just one of the first 22 games that campaign.
But when Johnson got his shot for the stretch run of that season, he thrived. After being reinserted in the lineup, he only sat one of the final 15 games.
“It was discouraging at first but I stuck with it – I love coming to the rink no matter what,” Johnson said. “I just kept working at in and then I got a shot, second semester, happened to get a goal and it snowballed from there.”
Johnson scored once and picked up three assists, earning points in consecutive games in early February, all the time dishing out checks and shutting down opponents’ best forwards.
“I think the tail end of his freshman year he kind of got comfortable like all freshmen do after adjusting to the game,” Green said. “He got some confidence, he got to play some games with Anthony Louis and a few with Kiefer Sherwood that helped him build his confidence, and then it kind of carried into his sophomore year. He kind of got off to a slow start but he got back to where his confidence was which helped him continue his growth and was a key player for the second half of (that) year.”
Entering his junior season on a high, Johnson scored Miami’s first goal of 2018-19 and was one of the best skaters on the team in the season opener vs. Alabama-Huntsville.
Unfortunately, his night ended early as he was run over bearing down on a loose puck toward the end of a shift, and he missed the next three games with a head injury.
Johnson would only dress for 18 more games that season, scoring one more goal and adding one assist.
“It was tough, I had a big summer coming into my junior year and I was excited to get back and make an impact,” Johnson said. “It was tough mentally moreso, once you’re battling for (lineup) spots, feeling good and not getting shots I think it’s a little more of a mental battle than a physical battle, believing I can get back to where I was, being more dominant, so there’s definitely an adjustment.”
Upon return, for whatever reason, it never appeared Johnson was back to that Game 1 – or second-half sophomore season – form.
“That’s tough – any injury early on the season is hard because you train all season to get to where you are,” Green said. “(He) was playing really well and that happened in the second period, and it’s his head so it takes longer than you’d like, obviously, but it kind of set him back.”
Senior defenseman and current roommate Grant Frederic was a healthy scratch almost that entire season, logging just one game, and he helped Johnson through his difficulties.
“There were definitely times when we leaned on each other and we got through the tough times,” Frederic said.
With the change in the coaching regime last spring, Johnson saw an opportunity to prove his worth to Miami and earn back ice time.
“I was excited for the change and opportunity,” Johnson said. “Obviously it’s tough to see someone leave who you were recruited by and brought here by, but at the same time, with (coach Chris Bergeron) coming in, he’s an intense guy. It’s a clean slate and you can prove yourself to him with fresh eyes.”
Despite the coaching change, Johnson did not suit up of for five of Miami’s first seven games this season.
But he has made the lineup card 18 times overall including the last seven games, scoring a goal and shutting down opponents.
“When you’re doing things a certain way for three years and a new group of people come in as far as the coaches go, it’s not easy,” Bergeron said. “He’s doing his best to try to play the game the way we want him to play.”
Bergeron had only seen Johnson play against his Bowling Green teams his freshman and sophomore seasons — against which he did score once — but after watching him in practice and games for nearly an entire season, he now has a full appreciation of his game.
“When he’s at his best and on top of his game, he’s a big guy that can skate and has some good skills,” Bergeron said. “He’s somebody that we’ve tried to get to compete at a consistent level, just from an intensity standpoint, but you watch him skate from the top of the circle to the top of the circle at 6-2, it’s impressive. He’s got some good hands. The other thing is he’s versatile. He can play center and wing, which is something we’ve taken advantage of and had him play both positions. He’s a guy that I know has been grinding for 3½ years and I’m glad to see he’s on path to graduate and finish what he’s started.”
Frederic said Johnson has taken huge strides from Game 1 of his freshman season to now.
“He’s put his head down and worked hard and developed as a player, and physically he’s gotten bigger and stronger and I think that’s helped his game,” Frederic said. “He’s a great kid and a guy everyone likes on the team. He’s always smiling and cracking a joke – it’s good to have him around. He’s a great player and an even better person.
“I think he’s playing his best when he’s checking and hitting hard on the forecheck, and it’s something that he does well, he’s a big body and that’s kind of his game. He has unbelievable skill, some of the best on the team – he has great hands. He’s done well and he’s worked hard.”
Morphing from a major scorer to a defensive, physical role on the fly has been a major adjustment for Johnson, especially transitioning while playing in the best conference in college hockey.
His teachings under Flynn at Swan Valley, which Johnson recalled, prepared him for that adjustment.
“(Flynn) sat me down, you’ve got a chance to make a run at this thing, but you’ve got to bear down in the defensive zone,” Johnson said. “That’s a big thing these days, especially being a center, being a two-way center is a lot more valuable than just a one-way. So I really honed in on it that year and make a conscious effort to be good defensively. Once that happened I really started to take pride in my defensive game and think that I can be relied on in a shut-down and faceoff role if my points and production weren’t happening.”
Johnson took 18 faceoffs on Saturday and won 10, and he has been a key reason Miami has won over half of its draws this season after struggling for several years in that department. The RedHawks currently have a .506 winning percentage in the faceoff circle.
His plus-2 rating last season tied for the team lead, and despite MU’s poor goal differential the past few seasons, Johnson is just minus-5 since his sophomore season.
He is also one of the most physical forwards on a Miami team in desperate need of players who can throw their bodies around.
“When he’s going, he’s banging bodies,” Green said. “He’s a big guy, he’s got a lot skill to him to, so…his mindset (is) finishing checks, playing through the body, then his skill set can take over and he can make some plays after he finishes the body and wins the puck.
And with his size, he has laid out some mammoth hits in his career.
“I really like his size, and I really like the fact that when he’s the best version of himself, he’s physical,” Bergeron said. “It’s not a strength of this group, and we need players to help us with that, and he’s one of those guys.”
In four seasons, Johnson has only netted four goals and assisted on seven others for 11 career points. But he understands quantitative stats do not tell the story of his impact on the ice.
“It’s definitely a transition and something that can be frustrating at times because you can look back and say, oh, well I’m not getting the points or the looks that I’m used to, but at the same time you’ve got to realize that roles get narrowed down a little bit and I found myself in a defensive role at times,” Johnson said.
The four years haven’t always been easy for Johnson, but he has no regrets about his decision to come to Miami.
“I’ve had some great memories made here, both on the ice and off the ice,” Johnson said. “Coming to Goggin, playing my first game here, it was unreal, an experience like no other that I’d ever had in hockey. Overall, I’ve made some great friends, there’s some great guys here, and I was fortunate enough to find my girlfriend here. It’s just kind of been surreal – you get to live out your college hockey dream in a place like this, it’s pretty special.”