Blackhawks’ Jack Johnson brings time-tested knowledge, experience

At this point, Jack Johnson is accustomed to needing his car’s navigation app for the first few days of training camp each year.

The former Kings and Blue Jackets stalwart defenseman –he spent about six years with each club –has recently become a late-career journeyman. The Blackhawks are his fourth team in as many years, having spent 2019-20 with the Penguins, 2020-21 with the Rangers and 2021-22 with the Avalanche.

But while Johnson is still learning how to get to Fifth Third Arena,he’s already fully comfortable in his role as a veteran mercenary.

After appearing in 1,024 NHL games, blocking 1,580 shots, dishing out 1,715 hits and finally earning his first Stanley Cup ring last season, the 35-year-old Indianapolis native exudes an aura of time-tested knowledge and patience that the otherwise largely inexperienced Hawks will need this season.

“That [role] was made clear,” Johnson said Monday. “But there’s nothing out of the ordinary that goes into that. You’ve just got to be yourself and be a good pro.

“The young guys now are very mature, probably more mature than young guys back when I started. They don’t necessarily need another coach, and we’ve got plenty of those. Sometimes they just need a friend and a teammate and somebody to be there. Because there are going to be ups and downs during the season, as a team and individually, [and] those are things that you have to learn how to navigate and how to deal with yourself. Hopefully as the older guys, we can [help them] navigate their way through.”

Working to his advantage is the fact Johnson already knows Seth Jones and Connor Murphy, the existing nucleus of the Hawks’ defensive core, quite well. Johnson and Jones spent 2.5 years together with the Jackets, while Murphy (as a Columbus native) and Johnson have often trained together during summers off.

With a wide array of young defenseman –from Alec Regula to Alex Vlasic to Ian Mitchell (when healthy again) to Isaak Phillips –on track to receive NHL time this season, those three veterans will be relied upon as mentors.

“[Jack is] a beast,” Murphy said. “Those [types of] guys have a wisdom that’s hard to describe. In the season, there’s always little moments when they’re able to settle things down for everyone, so they’re definitely valuable.”

Added new coach Luke Richardson: “He has been great: great in the dressing room, [great] on the ice in practice. [He’s] a true leader and pro.”

Johnson’s workout habits will also set a good example. Even Murphy, nine years into his own career, still tries to emulate some of Johnson’s favorite exercises, such as one particular resistance-band drill.

There’s no special secret to his longevity, though, other than hard work.

“A lot of people, as they get older, kind of back off,” he said. “I’m completely the opposite. I think as you get older, you almost have to work harder. So far, it has worked for me. It has kept me going.”

That training regimen helped him overcome a difficult pandemic-shortened 2021 season, during which a groin injury and subsequent surgery limited him to just 13 games, to bounce back for a full year in Colorado.

He scored in the season opener (against the Hawks), averaged 16:45 ice time over 74 regular-season appearances and enjoyed a lengthy playoff run for the first time, pushing any thoughts of retirement far out of mind.

“I’d been in the league a long time, but I’d never made it past the first round, so to go all the way was an incredible experience,” he said. “Right from the get-go, there was a definite feeling in the room and a confidence [that] there was no doubt we could do it. It was the most memorable year of my hockey life.

“After all the celebration and everything, I got home…[for] a little bit of normalcy. I was thinking about it: my body felt good, I still enjoyed competing and I had no reason to stop playing. Especially after winning, it just makes you want to do it again.”

The Hawks eventually came calling in August, about a month after free agency opened, offering a one-year, league-minimum contract. Johnson accepted it without hesitation.

“You still have to love the process in order to play the game,” he said. “Until I stop enjoying the process, I’ll want to keep going.”

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