Tyler Johnson has never forgotten his roots.
So when he got his ceremonial day with the Stanley Cup after the Tampa Bay Lightning won the National Hockey League championship, there was little question what he was going to do with it.
He shared it with those who watched him grow up in the Spokane area.
“I just want to say thank you for all the support over the years,” he told a cheering crowd shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday on a makeshift stage outside the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. “Spokane is, and always will be, my home.”
In what is considered one of the most enchanting traditions in sports, each member of that year’s Stanley Cup championship team gets a day with the chalice.
Fans began lining up shortly after 7 a.m. outside the Arena to celebrate Johnson and get a photo opportunity with the oldest trophy in North American sports, which was first awarded in 1892 and has the names of all previous winners etched on it.
By 3 p.m., with the temperature in the upper 90s, the line to see the cup stretched across the north end of the Arena, through a parking lot and all the way to North Lincoln Street.
A cheer went up when a police escort accompanied a black SUV into the parking lot. Johnson got out of the passenger side and walked around the front of the vehicle with the Stanley Cup in his hands.
Just before Johnson got to the stage outside the northwest corner of the Arena, he raised the trophy above his head to cheers. He raised it again after scaling the steps to the stage, drawing a chant of “Go, Chiefs, Go!”
After saying a few words, Johnson was joined on stage by Mayor Nadine Woodward, who listed Johnson’s accomplishments – including winning a Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008 and a gold medal with the U.S. at the World Junior Championships in 2010 – and proclaimed July 29, 2021, as Tyler Johnson Day in Spokane.
The crowd then began singing “Happy Birthday” to Johnson, who turned 31 Thursday.
Johnson lugged the trophy inside the Arena and set it on a small round table with a tablecloth featuring the NHL’s logo. He called the mayor over to be the first one to get a picture taken with the cup. Spokane Chiefs T-shirts with Johnson’s name and his jersey No. 9 were sold at a table in the foyer corner; nearby, Boomer, the Chief’s mascot, interacted with some of the younger fans.
As fans young and old started filing past to get their picture taken with the cup – the Chiefs estimated more than 1,000 were in attendance, with 500 or so getting a photo – Johnson held an impromptu news conference about 25 feet away.
“I love being here; I haven’t been in the Arena for a long time. It’s nice to be back,” Johnson said.
When told how early the line started forming in the morning, Johnson blurted, “That’s crazy!”
“It’s so rewarding being able to bring this back to Spokane. I know what great hockey fans they have. This is a thrill.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson wasn’t able to bring the cup home last summer after the Lightning won the first of their two consecutive titles – protocols barred it from leaving the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, metropolitan area.
Johnson did get a little extra time with the trophy, as he joined Lightning coach Jon Cooper on a tour of police and fire departments in Coeur d’Alene – as well as a couple of watering holes – earlier this week. Johnson swung by Spokane Fire Department Station 4 downtown Thursday with the cup to share it with first responders before making the trek to the Arena.
Johnson said he planned to spend the rest of the day sharing the trophy with his family.
“You only get it for one day, so you want to make sure the family gets some time,” he said.
It’s been an eventful few weeks for Johnson since the Lightning wrapped up the championship July 7, beating the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 to win the best-of-seven series four games to one.
With the Lightning right up against the NHL’s salary cap, the forward – with three years and an annual average value of $5 million left on his contract – was left unprotected in the expansion draft. When he wasn’t selected last week by the Seattle Kraken, Johnson was traded Monday to the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I expected something to happen the way the salary cap is,” Johnson said.
“Chicago’s a great spot, a little closer to Spokane. I’m excited for the opportunity. We had a lot of success in Tampa and I hope to take that to Chicago.”
With the NHL scheduled to return to its traditional schedule and alignment next season – all the Canadian teams were lumped into one division this past season due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions at the U.S.-Canada border – the Blackhawks are set to play twice in Seattle this season, on Nov. 17 and Jan. 17.
“I think Seattle is an awesome city. I know that building will be rocking,” Johnson said. “I played in the old Key Arena (with the Chiefs). I can’t wait to play there, probably with a lot of Johnson friends and family in attendance.”
Johnson said he hasn’t yet had much conversation with the Blackhawks about his role with the team.
“They wanted me to have fun with the cup and not worry about it,” Johnson said.
Which is exactly what happened Thursday back home in Spokane.
“I just wanted to share it with as many people as possible,” Johnson said.
“I feel like Spokane is a pretty small community, but we all support each other. To be able to bring this here … I didn’t know what it would be like with everything going on and the middle of the day, but they’ve shown the love.”
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