Greg Johnson, who made a name for himself in the hockey world as a champion and leader during a long career in the National Hockey League, passed away on Monday in his home in Detroit.
The details of the 48-year-old Thunder Bay native’s death have not been made official, but friends close to the Johnson family say no foul play was suspected.
Word around this tight-knit hockey community about Johnson spread fast on Monday night. While not many could confirm the news, the sad truth was known by Tuesday morning.
“Just beyond shocked,” Dave Siciliano said Tuesday evening in an interview. Siciliano coached Johnson on the infamous 1989 Thunder Bay Flyers junior A team.
The Nashville Predators, the NHL club Johnson spent the final seven of his 12 NHL seasons with, issued a statement on Tuesday regarding the death of their former captain.
“The entire Nashville Predators organization is shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Greg Johnson,” the Predators wrote. “Greg was an original Predator, coming to us in the expansion draft and serving as the team’s second-ever team captain, and first Predators captain to lead the team to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“During his time in Nashville, he was a consummate professional and terrific teammate who was an integral part of our community and in developing the Predators culture that we experience today. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Kristin and his daughters Carson and Piper. We offer our full support to them at this very difficult time.”
The hockey landscape outside of Thunder Bay offered their condolences throughout the day on Tuesday.
“An honour to call you a teammate,” wrote Corey Hirsch, who played with Johnson at the 1994 Olympics, on Twitter.
Johnson’s last major public appearance in Thunder Bay was at the Rogers Hockey Hometown weekend in January of 2016.
“We were blessed to spend time with Greg Johnson and his mom Judy,” wrote Hometown Hockey co-host Ron MacLean. “. . . Such safety and team (is) the Johnson’s way.”
He was a subject of a two-part interview with Chronicle-Journal hockey columnist Tom Annelin this past May where Johnson reflected on his career.
Johnson had simple advice to aspiring players: “Be humble, work hard, be kind to everyone you encounter and appreciate every moment.”
That quote encapsulated Johnson to a tee, said Siciliano.
“As good as a hockey player he was, he was that type of a person,” Siciliano said. “His teammates loved them even though it looked like he was getting all the glory.”
Johnson played 12 seasons in the NHL with Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Nashville. He gained prominence for his run with the Predators where his final seven seasons and captained Nashville to two playoff appearances.
Due to a heredity heart abnormality, Johnson was forced to retire in 2006 at the age of 35. He finished his NHL career with 785 regular season games under his belt with 145 goals and 224 assists.
When his playing days were over, Johnson worked in the financial industry in Detroit.
At five-foot-10 and 194 pounds, Johnson was considered small in the rough and tumble NHL of the mid- to late-1990s.
“The style of play the NHL had and what he had certainly wasn’t like today,” Siciliano said. “Today who knows how more successful he would have been offensively. Even at his size he did very, very well because his edges were so good.”
Prior to his pro career, Johnson was a standout with his local Flyers junior A club. In the 1988-89 season, he scored 96 points in 47 USHL regular season games and led the Flyers to the league crown and the Centennial Cup Canadian championship. Johnson was also named the USHL and national junior A hockey player of the year.
It was a dream season that ended with another Flyers team — the Philadelphia Flyers — choosing Johnson in the second round of the 1989 draft.
“That’s all he needed,” said Siciliano. “He was just a fantastic skater, puck handler. So smart with the puck as well. He was such a good team player. So unselfish. He had a lot of outstanding qualities.”
Johnson studied and played at the University of North Dakota for four years and became the program’s all-time leading scorer and three-time Hobey Baker Award finalist. He then joined the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team that earned a silver medal at the Lillehammer Winter Games.
Johnson is a two-time inductee into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. He went in with the 1989 Flyers in the team category in 2004 and again as an individual athlete in 2010.
Johnson’s father, Jim, was a lawyer and sports builder (also inducted to the NWO hall in 2016) in Thunder Bay who passed away in 2008. Johnson’s younger brother, Ryan, also played in the NHL.
Ryan Johnson is currently working with the Vancouver Canucks as a senior director of player development.
Greg Johnson is survived by his wife Kristen and children Carson and Piper, along with his mother Judy and brothers Ryan, Corey and sister Sarah and their families.