Tyler Johnson couldn’t believe that so many people in Spokane cared what he was doing three time zones away.
Johnson, a Central Valley High graduate who played for the Spokane Chiefs for four seasons, made his National Hockey League debut Thursday night for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 2-0 loss to the visiting New York Islanders.
“I had tons of text messages, Facebook twitters, all that media stuff,” Johnson said following the game. “It was kind of overwhelming. I didn’t know so many people paid such close attention.”
Johnson wore No. 63 as he played center, logging 11 minutes, 39 seconds without getting off a shot.
“Obviously, it was just a dream come true to get on ice,” Johnson said. “I was really excited during warmups. That was an impressive sight.
“We lost, so that’s not too good there, but it was a lot of fun.”
Johnson’s parents, Ken and Debbie, attended the game.
Johnson was playing with the Syracuse (N.Y.) Crunch of the American Hockey League when he heard about the promotion Wednesday night from Lightning vice president/general manager Steve Yzerman. He was leading the AHL in goals with 31 and was second in points with 57 through 59 games.
“Usually, if you’re called up, it means you’re going to play right away,” Johnson said.
Johnson got the call after Lightning star forward Vincent Lecavalier suffered a lower-body injury Tuesday night against Florida. Lecavalier, who has 22 points this season, is out indefinitely. Johnson said he didn’t know the details of Lecavalier’s injury.
“I’m sure it depends on how well I play,” Johnson said of staying with the big club.
The Lightning signed Johnson (5-foot-9, 182 pounds) as a free agent in March 2011. His size has been the question mark against him, but former teammates don’t buy that analysis.
“The guy had determination and the heart of a lion,” said Chiefs captain Brenden Kichton, who played with Johnson for three seasons. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He was really instrumental in helping me develop forward as a hockey player. His vision was amazing. He found me so many times.”
Johnson, 22, recorded 128 goals and 282 points during 266 Western Hockey League games with the Chiefs from 2007-11.
In his final season, he was named the WHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Year and Western Conference Player of the Year.
Johnson became the sixth player off the Chiefs’ 2008 Memorial Cup Championship team to make the NHL. The others are Jared Cowen, Ottawa; Jared Spurgeon and Justin Falk, Minnesota; Drayson Bowman, Carolina; and goalie Dustin Tokarski, who played with Tampa Bay until last month, when he was traded to Montreal. Tokarski now plays with Hamilton (Ontario) of the AHL.
Bowman and his Hurricanes play at Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Johnson had 53 goals and 115 points during his final season with the Chiefs.
“I just remember (he had) no quit in his game,” Kichton said. “He’ll play through anything – tremendous skill, hard worker, really good skater. The guy was just an all-around good player in every situation.
“You couldn’t really ask for a better guy to play with.”
Johnson became the fifth Spokane-born player to play in the NHL, according to Hockey-Reference.com. The others are Duane Wylie, who played 14 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in the mid-1970s; Bob Attwell, who played 22 games with the Colorado Rockies from 1979-81; Scott Levins (CV High), who played 124 games with four teams in the 1990s; and Patrick Dwyer, who is in his fifth season with the Carolina Hurricanes.