In April, Blackhawks forward Reese Johnson signed a two-year contract extension. It was a one-way deal, meaning his $750,000 and $850,000 annual salaries will be guaranteed even if he’s sent to the AHL.
And with the newfound financial security, he did something atypical for NHL players but quite fitting with his own down-to-earth personality.
He bought 37 acres of land along the Red Deer River in Alberta, Canada, fulfilling a lifelong dream to live in the country.
“I never grew up on a farm, but I always loved being outside and I have lots of buddies that farmed and lived on acreages,” he said Sunday, a smile spreading across his face while just talking about it. “I always thought it’d be super cool to have your own chunk of land to invite friends and family out and host big dinners and smoke some good meat.”
Johnson does far more than cook and party on his new land, though. Taking care of it requires plenty of hard work, which — during hot summers on the Albertan plains — provides most of the conditioning necessary to prepare for hockey season.
Fifteen of the acres are pastureland. He rented that out to a friend’s cattle herd but performed much of the manual labor himself. And while the cow-calf pairs that fill the pasture easily keep the grass down there, mowing the rest of the yard still takes him more than three hours.
“I would check the cows, feed the cats and keep everything in line [each day],” he said. “Fallen trees along the path, I’d cut them up with the chainsaw and use them as firewood. Myself and my girlfriend planted a garden with a lot of veggies, too.
“We had pretty much everything: carrots, potatoes, kale, radishes, raspberry bushes. We’re definitely going to limit it next year, because things were just blooming and growing as we came [to training camp] in September, so we basically gave our whole garden away to friends and family. But it was fun to keep you busy.”
Johnson grew up one province over in Regina, Saskatchewan, but played four seasons of junior hockey in Red Deer — a town of 100,000 located halfway between Calgary and Edmonton — and met his now-girlfriend there.
His land purchase has begun something of a westward migration for his own family, too. They came to visit during the summer, and some of them are staying the winter in the farmhouse to keep the plumbing from freezing. Johnson also inherited from the land’s previous owners a farm dog, Rufus, who keeps a constant watch out for coyotes or other problems.
During the season, however, the updates Johnson receives from up north feel like almost a planet away.
“You miss the land,” he said. “I always say we’re very fortunate to live the best of both worlds. We get to go home in the summer and have a nice peaceful acreage, and then we get to come and live in a Chicago highrise downtown. [They’re] completely different lifestyles, but we’re definitely fortunate.”
On the Hawks, Johnson has carved out a steady fourth-line role with his physicality and contagious work effort, appearing in 14 of the team’s last 15 games despite recording only one point (a goal on Oct. 27).
He seems safely in the NHL to stay, regardless of his contract type — especially considering the Hawks’ forward corps could thin out even more via trades over the next few months.
“He’s an ‘energy guy’ who brings a lot of feistiness to our lineup,” coach Luke Richardson said. “He’s vocal on the bench [and] in the dressing room. You need those guys. He’s going to do whatever it takes to help the team, and the guys appreciate that. He makes the most of what he’s got.”