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January 17, 2006 - Image 18

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The Michigan Daily, 2006-01-17

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8B - The Michigan Daily - SportsTuesday - January 17, 2006

The y've taken different paths, but their friendship remains unchanged
By Mark Giannottoj Daily Sports Writer

he date was July 30, 2005.
The setting was the Westin Hotel in Ottawa, Ontario.
The event was the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Like any sports draft, there were prognosticators projecting
which player each team would select. And there were the naysay-
ers who questioned the selections made by certain teams. But it's
the uncertainty surrounding the future of an 18-year-old kid that
makes a draft so interesting. No one is sure who will become the next great hockey
star. People were even questioning whether the league would rebound from the
one-year hiatus caused by the labor lockout.
But amidst all of the doubt, there were two friends who ignored all the hype and stuck
together in their quest for hockey success.
Two of a Kind
M ichigan freshman Jack Johnson and Pittsburgh Penguins rookie Sidney Cros-
by first met in the fall of 2002, when they began their sophomore year at Shat-
tuck-St. Mary's School, a small private school in Fairbault, Minnesota.
The two aspiring hockey players were the lone underclassmen to make the Shat-
tuck prep team. Johnson had starred on Shattuck's bantam team the previous year,
collecting 35 goals and 65 assists en route to a 100-point season. Crosby came in as
a player with a reputation well beyond his years. Many scouts were already anointing
him the next great hockey star.
As the youngest and most talented players on the team, Johnson and Crosby
quickly bonded on the ice and catapulted the team to new levels of success. The
dominance of the two 16-year-olds attracted national attention to their team and a
small Minnesota town.
"Sidney was so dynamic," said Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers. "I've never
seen a sophomore forward like Crosby - ever. And Jack as a sophomore defenseman in
high school, I've never seen anyone like him either. Even at that time, they were excep-
tional. I think people went to Shattuck to watch those two play. The attraction was that
you got to see two of the next potential (NHL) superstars."
Both were able to ignore the extraordinary amount of attention and lead Shattuck
to the 2003 USA Hockey Tier I Midget National Championship. Crosby ended the
season with an unbelievable 162 points (72 goals, 90 assists), and Johnson ended the
season with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists), establishing himself as one of the most
feared defenders in prep hockey.
The increased notoriety had no effect on the chemistry of the two sopho-
more superstars. Instead, their success only made them that much closer. The
bond they created transferred onto the ice and became apparent to anyone
watching their games.
"We had a chance to go see them at a tournament in Marquette because we
were playing Northern Michigan at the time," said Michigan assistant coach Mel
Pearson. "You could tell by the way they interacted with each other and their man-
nerisms on the ice that they were not only special players but good friends.
"On the ice at that tournament, the local team had assigned two kids to shad-
ow Sidney and take Sidney off his game. He played through it and you could tell
he was one of the best players. And that's how you could tell Jack was one of his
~buddies, because every time there was a skirmish, Jack was right there to make
sure he was helping Sidney out:'
Michigan fans have become accustomed to such actions by the freshman defen-
seman. Johnson has amassed 91 penalty minutes in just 21 games this season, and
has served notice that nobody will get away with pushing around the Wolverines'
freshmen-laden squad. Johnson's days as an enforcer on the ice began during his
season playing with Crosby.
"Prior to (the 2002-2003 season) I was one of the smaller guys on the team," John-
son said. "I couldn't really check the other guys, because they were usually bigger than
I was. He was the first time I kept an eye on someone, and because we were such close
friends I didn't want anyone to give him a cheap shot or anything. I enjoyed doing it."
Crosby and Johnson competed against each other in practice everyday. Going
against a player of similar talent helped to improve each player's skills. Michigan
junior goalie Mike Mayhew, who was a senior on that 2002-03 Shattuck team, saw
Jack and Sidney go at it all the time.
"Sidney saw how tough Jack plays and that forced Sidney to realize that he
was going to be playing against players who are that tough at the next level,"

Mayhew said. "And I think Jack realized that he is going to be playing against
guys as skilled as Sidney and as strong as Sidney."
Dozen's of Mom's Cookies
Onand off the ice, Crosby and Johnson did not appear to have much in com-,
mon. Crosby is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and was boarding at Shattuck
St.Mary's during the school year. Johnson is an American, born in Indianapolis,
who lived in the Fairbault, Minn. with his family at the time. Crosby is a dynamic for-
ward who would rather avoid physical play so he can create in open spaces. Johnson is
a defenseman who can put points on the board, but also serves as a physical presence in
his own zone. In interviews, Crosby is very soft-spoken and chooses his words carefully.
Johnson is straightforward and outspoken.
But their different backgrounds only brought them closer together. Because of Shat-
tuck-St. Mary's close proximity to the Johnson house, Crosby became a frequent visitor.
The Johnsons welcomed him into their home because they knew that the adjustment to
a new school was tough, and that Crosby's friendship meant a lot to their eldest son. The
two teenagers created memories that are still vivid in the minds of the Johnsons.
"Sidney used to come over, and Mrs. Johnson made I don't know how many
dozens of cookies for him' said Johnson's father, Jack Sr.. "But then all of a
sudden, he would be on his hands and knees playing mini-stick hockey with our
7-year-old Kenny. And next thing you know, Sidney and Jack are on the floor
playing each other in mini-stick hockey"~
Ask Crosby about his memories from Shattuck, and he doesn't even mention hockey.
His favorite moment with Jack occurred on the baseball diamond, not a sheet of ice.
"Jack was a pitcher for our high school team," Crosby said with a grin on his face in
Chicago last week. "And in one game, the other team's pitcher threw a pitch that came
real close to my head. Then the next pitch actually hit me. The next batter was Jack and
when the kid threw another pitch that was really far inside, Jack charged the mound and
started a huge brawl between both teams:'
The budding superstars supported each other in any endeavor. The friendship that
grew from shared talent on the ice had blossomed into a bond that could not be broken.
Friend or Foe
F or Crosby and Johnson, their sophomore year at Shattuck would be their last year
playing together on the same team. Each moved on to other teams and programs
after their triumphant season.
Crosby went to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and played two seasons
for Rimouski. During the 2003-04 campaign, he recorded 135 points (54 goals, 81
assists) in 59 games and led the league in scoring. He followed that with one of the
greatest seasons by a junior hockey player in Canadian history. During the 2004-05
season, Crosby had 168 points (66 goals, 102 assists). Retired hockey legend and cur-
rent Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky is the only player to amass more

points in one season during major junior league competition. Gretzky had 182 points
during the 1977-78 campaign.
Meanwhile, Johnson went on to play for the U.S. National Team Development
Program in Ann Arbor. On a team with the best 17- and 18-year-old hockey players
in the country, he led all defensemen in points and penalty minutes.
Even though Johnson and Crosby were apart on the ice, their off-the-ice friendship
still survived. Different uniforms were not going to tarnish the special moments they
had at Shattuck together.
"It's always fun when you go separate ways in hockey and in life to keep in
touch with your friends," Crosby said. "(Jack) is obviously a guy that I have
always stayed in touch with:'
During the summer of that 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Crosby and Johnson trained
together. Johnson went to Nova Scotia and lived with the Crosby family for a week.
The two woke up early to work out before playing street hockey or swimming in the
afternoon. But it wasn't all fun and games for the two. They were preparing for a draft
in which they were both highly rated.
"We are both pretty competitive, so we go pretty hard against ourselves," Crosby
said. "But we both try to make each other better. There were times where we'd be mad
at each other one minute and then we're best friends the next minute:'
When that fateful weekend came in July and both Crosby and Johnson were in Ottawa
for the draft, they roomed together. Going into the weekend, Crosby was the clear-cut
No. 1 pick. The Penguins had already made it known that Sidney was their guy. Jack's
fate was less clear. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks possessed the No. 2 pick, but they had
not decided whether they wanted to select a forward or a defenseman. Heading into the
draft weekend, Jack was rated as the top defenseman available.
During their training in the summer and the night before in their hotel room, Sidney
and Jack talked about what it would be like to go back-to-back at the top of the draft. But
it was all for naught. The Mighty Ducks opted for forward Bobby Ryan. The Carolina
Hurricanes then grabbed Jack with the No. 3 pick.
"It was all dependent on what a team wanted - a forward or a defenseman," Johnson
said. "We knew anything could happen, so we weren't really worried about it."
Long-Distance Relationship
Just like after their successful year at Shattuck-St. Mary's, Sidney and Jack
went their separate ways after the draft. Sidney went right to the NHL, where
he has become a star for the Penguins. Through 45 games, the dynamic for-
ward has posted 50 points (21 goals, 29 assists) and is a leading con-
tender for NHL Rookie of the Year.wo
Meanwhile, Jack decided to delay his NHL career to play for Michigan. -PW
Through 21 games, Johnson has 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists), tying him for
the lead in points among CCHA defensemen. Considering their backgrounds
each player's decisions make sense.
"Jack grew up with his goal to play college hockey at Michigan," Jack
Sr. said. "And Sidney's goal was to make it to the NHL as fast as he could.
Sidney and most Canadians are more inclined to do junior hockey than
thinking of college hockey."
But through all the different towns, schools and teams one thing has
remained constant for Crosby and Johnson: their friendship. The two talk on
the phone at least once a week and try to see each other whenever their schedules
allow it. When the Penguins played the Detroit Red Wings earlier this season,
Jack went to visit Sidney.
"The night before the game I went out to dinner with him," Johnson said. "He
actually treated me to dinner, thank God. We just hung out and talked about what
life was like for us now. He's still the same kid he was back in 10th grade. He hasn't
changed anything. Watching him play was pretty neat, thinking that two or three
years ago, I was playing high school hockey with him."
The success Sidney is having at the professional level has never made Jack question
his decision to come to Michigan. It appears that Johnson is firmly entrenched as a
Wolverine defenseman for at least the next few years. Instead of thinking about an early
jump to the NHL, Jack is just happy for his friend.
"I know that we are two different players who have developed at two different rates,
and obviously, he has developed more quickly' Johnson said. "And I'm in no rush to
make the next step to the NHL. We respect each other's decisions, and I don't think it
has affected our friendship at all. It's been fun keeping track of all he's doing:'

Photos by Rodrigo Gaya, Steven Tai, Ryan Weiner and AP.
Draft photo courtesy of Tina Johnson.

Jack and Sidney on the nmring of the 2005 NHL Draft in Ottawa, Canada.

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