Spokane’s own Tyler Johnson heads to Las Vegas on Sunday where he will find out Tuesday if he’s the NHL rookie of the year.
Before heading to Vegas, though, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Johnson stopped by Coeur d’Alene to help promote a kid-friendly exhibition that will bring professional hockey to the Lake City as part of a fundraiser for youth hockey.
Nearly two dozen former NHL standouts, past and present, including legendary Wayne Gretzky, will be at Frontier Ice Arena on July 11 for Hockey Fest – an event featuring a skills clinic for kids capped by a game involving former NHL and WHL All-Stars.
“A lot of the guys who will be playing I’ve been fortunate enough to skate with them before,” said Johnson, the former Spokane Chief who turns 24 next month.
Former NHL player Russ Courtnall, who skated with seven teams in a pro career that spanned 16 years, lives at Gozzer Ranch, a community built around a private golf course just east of CdA. He is credited with spearheading the clinic/exhibition event.
Johnson will play for the Coeur d’Alene Lakers, which will be coached by former NHL player Adam Deadmarsh who has lived in the area for nearly 10 years.
Deadmarsh and Johnson had a playful exchange about playing time in the event.
“Hopefully Deadmarsh let’s me play a few minutes here or there,” Johnson said.
Deadpanned Deadmarsh: “Depends on how you’re playing.”
Other former NHL players who are scheduled to join Gretzky and Courtnall are Brett Hull, Guy Carbonneau, Kraig Nienhaus and Keith Carney along with current players Barret Jackman and Brenden Morrow.
Longtime Spokane resident and current NHL referee Dennis LaRue will drop the puck.
LaRue, who turns 55 next month, just finished his 25th season in the NHL. He plans to referee at least one more season and maybe two more.
“It’s a young man’s game,” LaRue said. “I believe (refereeing) has kept me younger than my age.”
Money raised at Hockey Fest will go to help needy families who can’t afford the investment for their kids to play hockey.
“Coeur d’Alene has some room to grow in the hockey department,” Deadmarsh said, “and it’s nice we have this nice new arena. At times it can be an expensive sport but it truly is a great sport for kids. It’s a lifelong sport that every kid should have an opportunity to play if they can.”
Johnson played with the Lakers as a 15- and 16-year old – just before joining the Chiefs.
He recently signed a three-year contract with Tampa Bay in late May. USA Today reported the deal is worth $10 million.
Johnson started playing hockey at Eagles Ice Arena. He knows the commitment his family made to make his dream come true.
“I know how much even my family struggled making ends meet for hockey,” Johnson said.
He’s looking forward to the exhibition.
“When you can be involved with a bunch of NHL guys like this – some legends that you grew up watching and idolizing – it’s awesome,” Johnson said. “Now you’re going to play in the same game with them and get to know them more on a personal level. That will be a lot of fun.”
No. 99 (Gretzky) and No. 9 (Johnson) will take center circle for the opening face off.
Johnson said his rookie season couldn’t have been much better.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was a dream come true to have the opportunity that I was given this year. We had a great group of guys and a great team, but in the end we found the playoffs a little too soon in my opinion. It’s something we can change. It’s a learning experience for a lot of us. We have a lot of young talent, a really good core. It’s exciting to see what we can do in the future.”