Tyler Johnson was probably the only Spokane Chief who got off the bus from Prince George on Sunday afternoon with pep in his step.
That’s because he was headed out to a family dinner, where the main course was his signature on a professional hockey contract and dessert was tears.
“It was a lot of fun,” the Central Valley graduate said of the gathering of family and close friends who watched him sign a three-year entry level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“There was more than one or two people a little teary eyed. It was cool to see.
“I wouldn’t be here without my family. It’s special for me, but at the same time it’s special for them. To be able to share that with them was unbelievable.”
Johnson is having a spectacular final season with the Chiefs. The team, expected to be rebuilding this year, is three points behind Portland in the battle for the top seed in the Western Division for the fast-approaching Western Hockey League playoffs. Meanwhile, he has 106 points, which puts him second in the league scoring race, four behind Linden Vey of Medicine Hat with seven games to go. Johnson’s 48 goals are tied for the league lead with Ryan Howse of Chilliwack.
The Chiefs are back in action tonight at the Arena against Everett. They play five games at home, including Friday against third-place Tri-City, before ending the season with two road games, the last March 20 at Portland.
Since he wasn’t drafted, Johnson knew he would be with Spokane all season so he was able to focus on the task at hand, but as it got closer to the March 1 free agent period he admitted to getting a little nervous.
“It’s always in the back of my mind wondering if I was going to get the opportunity or not,” he said. “The month of February for me was (tough) trying to anticipate what might happen.
“Now I can focus on my own game and not worry about a contract. It’s definitely a burden off my back.”
It turned out a lot of teams were interested in Johnson, who also helped the Chiefs win the 2008 Memorial Cup and Team USA win the gold medal at the World Junior Tournament in 2010. That made last week a little hectic, but memorable. It helped that he had a few former teammates scattered throughout the league, including Dustin Tokarski, who is the goalie in Norfolk, Va., Tampa Bay’s team in the American Hockey League.
“It was a real tough decision,” said Johnson, who chose not to release details of his contract. “Tampa is a very good organization. I talked to Tokarski and he gave me great input. I thought I would have a great opportunity to play for them.
“It was a lot of fun for me. I met a lot of nice people, a lot of people in different organizations. … It was a great experience for me and my family.”
Once the word leaked Friday night that Johnson’s hockey future was decided, the Chiefs had a topic of conversation for the long ride home after they beat Prince George twice to run their winning streak to four.
“They’re all really excited for me,” he said. “They said I earned it and they’re happy for me. They helped me a lot. I wouldn’t have quite as many points if I didn’t have them at my side so I have to thank them as well.”