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Blanchette: Size matters not to Johnson

Tyler Johnson, left, has had to prove he could play with ‘big’ boys his whole career. (Colin Mulvany)
Tyler Johnson, left, has had to prove he could play with ‘big’ boys his whole career. (Colin Mulvany)

Eyes on the prize? Tyler Johnson’s peepers have never blinked.

As a Western Hockey League rookie, he was an indispensible element in the Spokane Chiefs’ 2008 run to the Memorial Cup – MVP, in fact, of the WHL’s championship series. Just last year, he played his way from the fourth line to recognition as one of Team USA’s top three players en route to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships.

But you can even rewind back to the age of 4, when he played on his first team, coached by his mother and grandfather and alongside Chiefs owner Bobby Brett’s son, Beau.

“We were the Slush Puppies,” Johnson remembered. “Oh, yeah. Got a free Slush Puppie after every game. Only reason I enjoyed playing back then, I’m sure of it.”

Funny thing is, you get the feeling Tyler Johnson would still play for a Slush Puppie, even if that was the only reward.

Maybe it’s that a 4-year-old’s sweet impishness brightens this 20-year-old’s smile, or maybe it’s his game – anchored as it is in discipline, hard-learned savvy and tenacity – somehow still projects freewheeling fun.

But Johnson understands, too, that the stakes grow more serious now, with even steeper odds. Then again, his toolbox is already equipped for just this very thing.

The Small Thing.

“It’s something I’ve had to battle my whole life,” Johnson said, “and it’s not going away now.”

Dead ahead, of course, are other battles. Johnson’s final WHL season continues Saturday at the Spokane Arena against Everett, with the changing-on-the-fly Chiefs – new coach, lots of new faces – off to a predictably fitful start. Raising his teammates’ competitive level is a leader’s challenge; so is evolving from a difference maker, which he’s been since donning a Chiefs sweater, to go-to guy.

This might seem a minor heresy for a player who was but an 11th-round pick in the WHL’s bantam draft – and who at one point was even taken off the Chiefs’ protected list.

True deal. It happened as a 16-year-old. He’d broken his collarbone playing for a U-18 team in Spokane and the Chiefs, with no reason to suspect another club might come poaching a kid from Spokane – not exactly a hockey hothouse – dropped him to protect another prospect.

“His first camp with us as a 15-year-old was just OK,” recalled general manager Tim Speltz. “He was a young, small guy at the time, and then he got hurt and wasn’t playing. You always try to strategize and manipulate (the list) a little, and we probably over-thought it terribly. We knew he might get invited to other camps, but as long as he was committed to us we knew we’d have him back, and then he went and played Junior B in Coeur d’Alene and had a phenomenal year.”

Operational phrase: a young, small guy.

Johnson is 5-foot-9, 175 pounds – a bantamweight if you’re divvying the Chiefs dressing room into weight classes. Having started playing at age 4 against 5- and 6-year-olds, he is certainly used to going up against older and bigger – and to overcoming faulty assumptions.

“It really comes to mind the first time I was a squirt player,” he said. “The next year is peewee and we start hitting, and I remember a bunch of my friends actually saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be able to through these guys because they’re going to be able to hit you. You’re too small.’ But I led the team in points.

“Then I heard I can’t play juniors, and I can’t play in the WHL and I’m here, and the World Junior guys didn’t think I’d be able to make it there. In my eyes, it doesn’t really matter. Put me in a corner with a 6-foot-6 guy and I’m going to doeverything I can to get the puck.”

Does the rap get under his skin?

“I’m not going to pout about it,” he shrugged. “At the same time, it motivates me and frankly makes me play harder. I know it’s made me a better player.”

Not that there wasn’t a little destiny involved. His parents, Debbie and Ken, met playing rec-league hockey at Eagles Ice-A-Rena. He was not quite born into skates, but was in a pair by the time he was 18 months old and rarely took them off, tagging along with his mother four times a week as she taught skating classes.

“But he’s had to learn to do other things well,” said Ken Johnson. “He takes face-offs very seriously and has worked on that since he was very young. He had to learn how to use his body to protect the puck, and how to take angles on his body checks – all the little things an undersized player has to do to prove himself.”

As a Chiefs rookie, he proved himself a different way, when then-coach Bill Peters put him on a checking line with Levko Koper and Justin McCrae to combat opponents’ top scorers. Their success was a significant driver in Spokane’s run to the Memorial Cup – but not because they were one-dimensional.

“I remember a conversation Bill and I had after the first two playoff games against Everett,” Speltz said. “He thought that line was trying to be so responsible defensively that they were holding back offensively. So he challenged them: ‘When you have a chance to be the guy, be the guy.’ And we saw that in the league championship series when he just dominated.”

The Memorial Cup is, of course, Johnson’s treasured memory. He had grown up devoted to the Chiefs; Brandin Cote, especially, was a favorite – and not only because he stood just 5-10, but because of his style and personality. Johnson has carved out a similar following for the same reasons, and though he admitted that “sometimes I feel some pressure, there isn’t anything better than playing in your hometown.”

Not that it’s always that way.

“I think it’s tougher for kids in Canada,” Speltz said. “Fans can be more critical, and there’s some envy in certain spots. It’s refreshing to me to see the way our fans have adopted Tyler. It’s as special as I’ve seen and I wouldn’t say unique to the states, but to Spokane.”

Now comes the last step – winning over an NHL organization the way he has every step of the way. He has been to camps with Phoenix and Minnesota, and Speltz is certain someone will find a place for him.

“Tyler grows on you,” he said. “Big guys get more opportunities; they just do. That’s not just in hockey, that’s in sports. If you’re small, you’re going to have to be special, and I put Tyler in that category. Scouts will question him. Coaches will love him for the way he plays.

“I use that in reverse, too – there are a lot of players scouts love that coaches don’t. A kid may be big and can skate and do this and that, but put him in a game and they don’t play. This kid plays the game.”

No matter what the prize.