When Bear Hughes first got to pick his hockey jersey number, he made his choice as so many kids do: He went for the same number as one of his favorite players, Tyler Johnson.
Johnson wore No. 9 for the Spokane Chiefs and then for the Tampa Bay Lightning, so that’s what Hughes chose.
“When I was younger, I really looked up to him and started wearing it when I was 10 or 11, and I just stuck with it,” said Hughes, who skated with Johnson during summers at Frontier Ice Arena in Post Falls. “It was mainly because of him.”
Since the 2018 season, it has been Hughes wearing No. 9 for the Chiefs, but he will be the last to do so.
On Tuesday, the Chiefs announced a plan a year in the making to retire the number of Spokane native Johnson. The ceremony is scheduled for Feb. 4, when the National Hockey League is on a break for the Winter Olympics.
That will allow Johnson, who will play for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, to attend in person.
“Having a number being retired, it’s a dream come true,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Even though, I’ll be honest, I never dreamt that far.”
Johnson’s No. 9 – which he picked because it was the number his mother, Debbie, wore – will be the second number the Chiefs have retired, along with Ray Whitney’s No. 14.
Whitney played in 1,330 NHL regular-season games from 1991 to 2014, scoring 385 goals and assisting on 679 others. All are totals no other former Spokane Chiefs player has matched. Like Johnson, Whitney has a home in Coeur d’Alene where he spends time during the offseason.
“Ray’s an unbelievable player, unbelievable guy,” Johnson said. “It’s an honor for me to be up there, (my jersey) hanging next to him.”
While Johnson hasn’t had the NHL career of Whitney – Johnson has played 589 regular-season games and recorded 361 points – as junior players, their résumés place them statistically among the club’s all-time greats.
Whitney’s 348 points with the Chiefs make him the team’s all-time career leader. Johnson ranks ninth on that list with 282, nine fewer than fellow Spokane native Kailer Yamamoto, who had 291 points with the Chiefs.
Both won a Memorial Cup in Spokane: Whitney in 1991 and Johnson in 2008.
“What is there to say about ‘Johnny’ that hasn’t been said already?” Chiefs managing partner Bobby Brett said in a team release. “Tyler was a champion here in Spokane, was a champion in the AHL and is now twice a champion in the NHL. Even more importantly, he has been an outstanding ambassador for our city, our organization and the hockey community here in the Inland Northwest.”
Johnson’s legacy is one Hughes knows well and appreciates.
“For hometown kids like me and other guys that play hockey in the area, he’s a pretty big role model,” Hughes said. “Being a guy who was undrafted and played in the NHL, and he won a Memorial Cup. That’s pretty remarkable.”
The team learned of the plan to retire Johnson’s number during training camp, assistant coach Dustin Donaghy said, with Johnson in attendance. Donaghy, in his third year as a Chiefs coach, is also involved in local youth hockey and as a player spent three years on the Chiefs, all with Johnson.
He said no one is more deserving of the honor than Whitney and Johnson.
“Having your jersey retired at any level just separates you from everybody and also grounds you to everybody,” Donaghy said. “It really shows who you are as a person and as a player and, first and foremost, who you are as a representative of your community.”
Since Johnson wore it, aside from Hughes, four other players have worn No. 9 for the Chiefs: Rykr Cole for eight games, Zach Fischer for 43 and Graham Sward for one. Keanu Yamamoto, who is also from Spokane and played for the Chiefs from 2013 to 2016, wore it the longest, for 271 games. He is the older brother of Kailer Yamamoto, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers.
Johnson said the team originally told him they were planning the jersey retirement before last season, but with fans not allowed to attend Chiefs games during the shortened 2020-21 campaign, a delay made sense.
For now, Hughes said he will continue to wear No. 9. He and the team are still mulling their plans to transition to a new number on Feb. 4.
To Johnson, it is fitting that Hughes wears the number for now.
“It’s great, because obviously Bear and I are very close,” Johnson said. “I’ve known him for it seems like forever. It’s pretty cool.”
After playing his entire professional career and winning two Stanley Cups with the Lightning organization – including nine seasons with Tampa Bay and one with their American League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch – Johnson said he is eager to start a new chapter of his career as a member of the Blackhawks.
“I was with Tampa for 10 years, and they’re awesome. I love the organization and don’t have a bad word to say about it,” Johnson said from Chicago, where he has been for a week. “I was very grateful to play for them and do what we did as a group, but going to Chicago here, I feel really fresh. It’s really exciting to have that anticipation for something different.”
He’ll wear No. 90 in Chicago. He can’t wear No. 9.
Bobby Hull wore that number, and in Chicago, it’s retired.
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