Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

There is hope, Columbus

During the off season, I try to remember that between players training in the off season, and youth hockey camps and the Stanley Cup traveling about, there is hockey somewhere. This week, that somewhere is Portland, Oregon, where the Winterhawks will open their training camp. Among the question marks for us is whether or not some of our highly drafted players will return to Portland this season or stay with their NHL teams. We are already preparing ourselves for a Winterhawks roster without Nino Niederreiter. But some hold out hope that Ryan Johansen will return to us this season. For Ryan’s sake and that of the Columbus Blue Jackets, I hope he stays with his NHL team. Because it’s what he wants and I want him to be happy. And because I assure you Columbus, there is hope: its name starts with an R.

Mystery solved: I first noticed Ryan at a pre-season game, when he checked an opponent right into the glass, and the guy behind me made note of the new player on the roster, “Number 19, Johansen.”  Another person asked “what do we know about him?” He was a rookie, Mike convinced him to play here, he might be from Europe. The European player, as it turned out, was his linemate, Nino Niederreiter. He was a tall, gangly 17-year-old with a sharp eye for the net and puck protection that was a lot like that scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” where Luke has crash landed in a swamp, and R2D2 tries to take back the lamp from Yoda and he yells “mine, mine, mine!” and hits the droid several times. At the time, the Portland Winterhawks were in a position not so unlike that of Columbus - we hadn’t seen a post-season in three years. Players had started leaving the team because their careers were going nowhere. One dreadful season, they won 11 games all season. In the pre-Mike Johnston years, fans used to buy cheap seats and just move to the good ones when the game got underway because the rink was so empty. And then one day, we looked down, and there he was. The future. The hope we had waited for. The light at the end of the tunnel. Out of one of the darkest times in the Winterhawks’ history came one of the most important pieces of its brightest future: #19, Johansen. 

When he needs to, he throws a mean punch:  Ryan has never gotten into a fight in a game, and he told me himself there were only several choice occasions on which he would start a scrap: to defend himself, teammates, or to get the guys going in a game. Or, ya’ know, if you want to give your future linemate the business to let him know who the alpha dog is: the first time Ryan and Brad Ross played together was at training camp, where they promptly got into a fight.

This must explain why he can rock an argyle sweater: I had the privilege of meeting Ryan for the first time at a monthly pizza “Hawkey Talk” event held by the Portland Winterhawks’ Booster Club, where I pulled the winning raffle ticket and bought him a pizza. He was wearing jeans, tennis shoes that looked kinda like bowling shoes and a blue and brown argyle sweater. Among the discussion topics: why icing is a scoring opportunity, that Nino Niederreiter does not in fact ride around in a town car with Troy Rutkowski at the wheel, chirping orders at him (“turn left up here, it’s faster….turn up the heat, it’s cold in here…can we stop for a snack?”) and why golf is in fact, a sport and not an excuse to wear mismatched or unfashionable clothing (like say, argyle sweaters) in public. Seems young Ryan there is quite the avid golfer, and once entertained the idea of going pro. I don’t know diddly about golf, nor do I want to, but I do know this: if you are 17 and wearing footwear that vaguely resembles bowling shoes and an argyle sweater and you can rock it like everyone should follow your fine example, then don’t give up the golf dream. It just might happen yet. Ya’ know, after you’re done playing hockey and all.

He’s pretty good with a soundbite, too: Among the choice media tidbits from the 2010 Entry Draft is an interview in which Ryan and Nino interviewed each other. It’s a true vintage moment if there ever was one, and if you ever want to know what they’re like off the ice, this is it.

Never judge a mild-mannered Canadian teenager by his cover: Seeing him in interviews, you’d think Ryan was just your average aw shucks kid from BC. But beneath the surface is a fierce competitor who I suspect regularly beats his teammates at XBox or whatever else the kids today are into. One of my favorite quotes about Ryan didn’t come from him, it came from his mother. She told me that when he would lose, he wouldn’t give up, he would just try harder. As the Blue Jackets begin a long climb out of a deep hole this season, I can assure you one of the players working the hardest to help them, if he makes the roster, will be Ryan.

Because he can handle anything you throw at him: The day Ryan returned to Portland after playing with Columbus in the pre-season, his plane landed in Portland around 5 and he went straight to the rink from there. This after a scary delay in Vegas, where he said the wind from a storm was rattling his plane and the cargo carts outside on the tarmac. He went on to just miss a shootout goal that would have won the game for the team. When I asked him about it afterwards, he explained that he thought he had it with a backhand, forehand, five hole, looked up and realized “uh oh.” On what he was thinking: “what move should I use next time?” He went on to use a lot of different moves the next time and the rest of the season, all of which culminated in being named playoff MVP. And when the season ended in a brutal loss to the Kootenay Ice, he and Captain Brett Ponich came out of the dressing room and thanked me for everything I did during the season. They could have walked right by and not said a word. They didn’t. They stopped to say thank you.  Dudes, thank you. I just work here. But as you can see, no matter what situation you put him in, Ryan handles it the way he always does: with grace, style and dignity.

The wait will be worth it: Ryan is known around these parts as a late bloomer, and it may take him awhile before he becomes the superstar he has been here in the Dub. But I assure you, whether it’s his first career hat trick, great plays or golf swings, whatever Ryan does, it’s worth waiting for. Everytime I talked to him this season, it seems Columbus somehow made it into the conversation. He wants to be there, he wants to help you, and more than anything, he loves to win. I’ve seen him after winning games, and I’ve talked to him when the Hawks have gone down like a ton of bricks. And I can tell you this: Ryan has grown up in the year and a half since I bought him that pizza, but the very best parts of him have never changed. The boy from Port Moody is ready for you, and I hope you are ready for him. ‘Tis true, one player can’t save a whole team, not even Ryan. But Portland knows what it’s like to be in your shoes, because we’ve worn them. And that’s how I know for sure there is hope, Columbus. It worked for us, and I know that if you treat him well, use him wisely and have faith, it will work for you.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com