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Rookie of year finalist Johnson joins U.S. team for world tourney

Fri., May 2, 2014, 9:46 p.m.

Tyler Johnson needed a few days to decide if he wanted to give up one month of his summer break to travel to an old Soviet republic.

In the end, of course he did.

Johnson, the Tampa Bay Lightning center by way of Central Valley High and the Spokane Chiefs, left today to join the U.S. men’s team at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Minsk, Belarus.

Johnson said he was asked to join the team “a couple of hours” after the Lightning were swept from the NHL playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, who won three of the four games by one goal.

“It’s a long season and my body was beat up,” Johnson said Wednesday before heading to a family outing at Wandermere Golf Course. “I just needed a couple of days to completely relax because in the playoffs you’re so emotionally involved.

“But I’ve actually never been overseas, so I’m completely excited about it.”

The world championships are played on longer and wider Olympic-sized ice, which should benefit Johnson’s superb skating ability.

Johnson is coming off a successful season that culminated with the announcement that he’s one of three finalists, with teammate Ondrej Palat, for the Calder Memorial Trophy that honors the league’s top rookie.

Johnson led all NHL rookies in faceoffs won, finishing at 48.2 percent, and tied for the league lead among all players with five short-handed goals. He was the second rookie in NHL history to record five short-handed goals and five power-play goals in one season.

Johnson finished the regular season with 26 assists and a club rookie-record 24 goals, and added one goal and one assist in the playoffs.

“There were a lot of good rookies this year and a lot of people who are deserving of it,” Johnson said. “When I found out (about being a finalist), I was actually next to Palat … so we both looked at each other and said, ‘Congratulations,’ and shook each other’s hands.”

Johnson will be in attendance when the trophy is awarded June 24 in Las Vegas.

Johnson said he gained invaluable experience by playing 14 games with Tampa Bay during the 2012-13 season after being called up from the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch.

“One of the things for me is that I’d had that success in the AHL, but I didn’t know how big a step it was going to be (to the NHL),” he said. “For me to be able to play some games, see the level of talent and see how they play, it gave me a big understanding.”

Johnson said he’s fortunate to play for the Lightning, who have a loyal fan base and a top-notch facility with a massive Jumbotron. The Lightning drew an average of 18,612 fans this season to rank 10th among 30 teams.

For road trips, Johnson’s favorite city was Nashville, Tennessee, because of the ever-present country music and cowboy boots.

The overall media attention surprised Johnson the most about the NHL.

“You have to be careful what you say or do, because it might rub some people the wrong way … but at the same time, I think everyone should be careful with what they say and do,” he said.

No matter what, Johnson expects to spend each offseason in Spokane. He wants to become more involved with community projects, especially after learning about the Mark Rypien Foundation during the NHL’s Olympic break in February.

“I have my trainer, some ice where I skate, and my friends and family,” Johnson said. “I can’t see myself ever going anywhere else.”

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