It’s been 10 years since Dustin Donaghy and Tyler Johnson skated together for the Spokane Chiefs, and another two years since they won a Memorial Cup together as Western Hockey League rookies back in 2008.
Their hockey careers took different directions after that. Donaghy played six years in the Central Hockey League with stops in Texas and Kansas before eventually returning to Spokane. He is now an assistant coach for the Chiefs and the director of hockey development for the Spokane American Youth Hockey Association.
After leaving the Chiefs in 2011, Johnson went to Norfolk, Virginia, and won an American Hockey League championship there with the Admirals, allowing him to hoist a second Cup, the Calder. Johnson played one more year in the AHL and then established himself with the Tampa Bay Lightning, about as far from Spokane – almost 3,000 miles – as any team in the NHL.
Yet Johnson’s presence in his hometown is very much felt by Donaghy, partially because the eight-year NHL veteran spends summers in Coeur d’Alene.
But it’s also because Johnson remains tied to the local youth hockey scene, and Donaghy sees how much Johnson is revered by the youngsters who idolize him.
“He has set a precedent on what they want to do as a youth hockey player,” Donaghy said. “They can say ‘I grew up in the same town as Tyler Johnson did, and I can go to the NHL, just like him.’ ”
Johnson will play Friday night in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals, his team up 2-1 in the best-of-seven series with the Dallas Stars. This is his second chance at hoisting a Cup that has eluded the 30-year-old winger; Tampa Bay lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games in 2015.
If the Lightning win this series, something they could do as soon as Saturday, Johnson would be the first Spokane native to win a Stanley Cup.
The NHL has announced the Cup won’t make its usual national tour this year – traditionally each member of the winning team gets his day with the trophy – but it hopes to do so in 2021. So eventually, the Cup might pass into the Spokane area for the first time since Colorado Avalanche forward Scott Parker – a former Spokane Braves player – brought it to town in 2001.
But Johnson has led many in the area to root for the Lightning, including Chiefs’ forward Bear Hughes, who grew up skating with Johnson at Frontier Ice Arena in Post Falls.
“The whole reason I started liking Tampa is that’s where he plays,” Hughes said. “If you watch him on the ice, especially watching the last three games (in the Finals), every shift he’s out there his legs are good. He’s on the forecheck, getting turnovers. He doesn’t back down from anyone.”
Hughes skated with Johnson during the summer, before the NHL started its postseason in playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. Hughes is projected as a late-round pick in the NHL Draft on Oct. 5 and 6.
“With (the draft) around the corner there’s a lot of excitement, but I’m not gonna set my hopes on that,” Hughes said, and then cited Johnson as an example: “If you’re not drafted, it’s not the end of the world.”
Johnson went from an undrafted prospect to an NHL All-Star who has now played 534 regular season NHL games and another 90 in the playoffs.
“The only thing that’s really changed is the years he has on him,” Donaghy said. “He’s no longer a 16-year-old kid, but what he’s developed himself into is a veteran player … It’s just a more mature Tyler, (who has) gotten faster, stronger, bigger, and he continues to grow.”
Spokane has produced seven NHL players, including three who played in the playoffs this season. Derek Ryan’s Calgary Flames advanced into the eight-team Western Conference bracket but lost to the Dallas Stars, 4-2. Kailer Yamamoto and the Edmonton Oilers were eliminated in the qualifying round.
Donaghy drew a direct line between those three and said their impact on the local hockey scene is noticeable.
All three give back in various ways: Johnson hosts autograph sessions and skating clinics, Ryan helps support the Spokane Braves, and Yamamoto said he tries to follow in the example of those two by skating with kids at youth events.
“When you’re a kid, when you see a role model and they’re skating with you,” Yamamoto said, “it’s like a dream come true.”
Donaghy said every hockey player has that experience: that of the little kid, idolizing players that they see on TV. It’s something that sticks with Donaghy now as he sees more and more of Spokane’s young players donning Lightning jerseys.
“I think they see what they can do,” Donaghy said, “(and) where they can go.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.