Q&A with Aaron Johnson

By Aaron Vickers

HF: You grew up in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia

The Syracuse Crunch, as an organization, has made a strong
effort to present themselves in a very professional manner, both on and off the
ice, which has instilled a down-to-earth, hard working attitude in their players.
This is not more evident than in defenseman
Aaron Johnson.


Johnson, who began his career with the Crunch this season,
has had only had five months to be shaped in the Crunch mold.
Pride, modesty and a level head are all characteristics that were instilled
before he arrived in


Johnson began his journey to professional hockey through
the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski
Oceanic in 1999-2000, after being selected ninth overall in the Midget Draft. In
220 games played for
Rimouski, he
recorded 34 goals and 158 points. Johnson experienced the business aspect of
hockey in his last season of Major Junior, when he was dealt from
Rimouski after
one Memorial Cup championship and three and a half seasons, to finish his
junior career with the Quebec Remparts.


It was with Rimouski that Johnson
posted totals of 12 goals and 53 points during 2000-2001, his draft season.
Seeing a strong combination of talent and determination, he was selected 85th
overall in the 2001 National Hockey League Entry Draft by the Columbus Blue


After signing his first professional contract in the spring
of 2003, Johnson has quickly and quietly made a huge impact on the Syracuse
Crunch. An offensive defenseman, he has registered 19 points (5 goals, 14
assists) in just 38 games, a point-per-game pace and ahead of any other regular
blueliner on the team. His achievements have not gone
unnoticed around the league. Johnson was named, as a rookie, to the American
Hockey League’s mid-season spectacular, the 2004 Pepsi AHL All-Star Classic,
taking place at the Van Andel Arena in
, Michigan
February 8th and 9th.


Aaron Johnson took the time to talk to Hockey’s Future
before heading out on a road trip. Speaking candidly, he addressed topics
ranging from his minor hockey days, to disappointments from Canadian Junior
camps, to his season with the Syracuse Crunch.


You grew up in Port
Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. Did you play your minor
hockey in your hometown?

Yes, I played all the way up until Midget AAA. Eventually I grew up to play my
Midget AAA for Cape Breton West.


Growing up, what was it that led you to the sport of hockey, as opposed to
picking up a sport such as basketball or baseball?

AJ: I played all those sports. Growing up, my hometown was
a small town, so pretty much all the guys played every sport. When it came to
hockey, it was something I enjoyed more than all the other sports and as I grew
older I ended up playing in the summer, and it became a big part of my life.
Now I enjoy playing so much I’ve made it my job now.


HF: In terms of your hockey, what kind of impact did your
parents have growing up, and supporting you in your hockey?

AJ: They had a huge impact. I have two older brothers and
they both played hockey as well so they kind of lead my parents through the
ropes and we’ve very much become a hockey family. They’ve been through so much
and they’ve always been behind me no matter what. With that attitude from them,
you can’t lose. They’re always behind you, and it’s a lot easier to go out on
the ice and enjoy that.


Is there any coach or coaches in particular that stands out in your mind that
may have contributed to turning you into the player you are today?

AJ: I can’t really specify. I mean, growing up I had so
many different coaches. Every guy, every coach I had I’ve learned something
unique from. They’ve all been great to me and all of them have helped me get to
where I am so far. I can’t say one coach because I’ve been fortunate enough to
have several, to have quite a few great coaches.


Was there ever any consideration towards taking the college route and going to
school, getting an education, as opposed to playing Major Junior?

AJ: My brother grew up and played in the Ontario Hockey
League, actually played in all three leagues, but ended up in the OHL in
Kingston and
he said he enjoyed that a lot better than the college route. He said that he
found that some players he had played with that junior was
the best route if you wanted to build a hockey career. That helped my decision.
I thought that this would be the best way, and it turned out fine.


You were selected ninth overall by
Rimouski in the 1999 Midget
Draft. You were also named ‘Defenseman of the Year’ with
Cape Breton West and named to
Nova Scotia Elite. Did these
accolades put any pressure on you to perform immediately when you joined the

AJ: Not necessarily. You can’t think too much of it to be
honest. You’ve just got to go out there and play hockey. It’s a great
experience going through the process of being drafted, and quite the experience
being drafted in the first round. I just took out the most I could from it, but
I didn’t try to put any added pressure on myself. You kind of have to just go
out there and play your game, because that’s what got you there, and that’s
what will make you a good hockey player.


What would you consider to be your more important lessons learned in junior?

AJ: In lessons, I think always working. You have to work on
and off the ice. I had a coach, Donald Dufresne, who
had played in the NHL, in my first year with
Rimouski and
he really took me under his wing and helped me off the ice, and with
conditioning, and showing me little tricks here and there. When you’re on the
ice you have to work 110 percent and even off the ice doing the little things
too that will help you on the ice.


Was it a challenge to balance your on-ice life with your off-ice life, with
school playing a factor as well when you weren’t playing hockey?

AJ: Definitely. It was a little harder for me and other
guys that go to
Quebec to play
because we can’t go to the English schools or the French schools like others.
We have to take our lessons by correspondence. It was a little tough. It was
really hard to stay motivated to go home and do a little bit of work every day,
not having a teacher there to say ‘do this, do that’.
I managed, I had a lot of help from my guidance councillors back home in Port
Hawkesbury that helped me. If I ever needed anything I’d call.


Did you ever feel alienated at all playing hockey in a predominantly French

AJ: At the beginning it was a little different living with
a French family and in a French culture, but I was fortunately enough to be put
in French-immersion growing up by my parents so that had helped me a lot when I
moved to Rimouski. I say it a lot that hockey players
are all the same, but despite the language barrier, it’s very easy to talk
hockey and communicate out on the ice.


Midway through the last season of your junior career, you were moved from
Rimouski to the Quebec Remparts.
Was that just a taste of the business aspect of hockey come early?

AJ: Yeah, I mean being traded is always a business. It’s
different for me because I played my entire career with
Rimouski, for
three and a half years, and had all my friends there. It was a little different
to go to a new team and finish my career there, but I had the Memorial Cup
there. It helped a lot. I got to meet new friends, and I got to see the
business side of how hockey works, and I think it was a good experience for me
because who knows in the American Hockey League. You can get traded at any
time. It’s good to have that background behind me and get a feel for it so when
it does happen it won’t shock me.


You attended the Canadian Junior Selection Camp your last two seasons in
junior, only to fall short on both occasions, being a part of the last round of
cuts. Was it difficult getting that far and knowing that you weren’t part of
Canada afterwards after
competing for a spot and competing well?

AJ: Absolutely. It’s always tough when you’re cut from a
team but what I did was I took the positives out of being selected among the
group of forty players who were competing for a spot on that team. It’s a great
compliment in itself and I always try to take the positive out of those things when they do happen. It was tough, two years in a row
to be cut, but I continued working and it just meant that I had to continue to
work hard and develop my game further. Hopefully one day I will be a part of a
special team like that.


Did you consider being cut from the team as a means of motivation for yourself,
returning from the camp to your junior team?

AJ: Yeah, definitely. You want to go out there and prove to
yourself and prove to the team that you’re a good hockey player. That was definitely
motivation, but on the flip side you try not to think about that too much. You
just have to go out and play your game and enjoy what you’re doing.


You won the Memorial Cup in your first season with Rimouski,
and your last season with Quebec, you were there again. Was it bittersweet,
knowing what it takes to be successful in the tournament, but falling short to
Hull in the semi-finals?

AJ: It was great to have that glory the first year, and to
be playing with a guy like [Brad] Richards in my first year. I took that
experience and I learned a lot from it and I tried to do the best I could and
the best the team could as a whole. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough but any
experience like that builds a hockey player, with the three best teams in the league
and the host. It’s just a great atmosphere to be in, and every player benefits
from being there.


Would you consider your second Memorial Cup, which you weren’t as successful
in, as a bigger learning experience than your first, which you won, or would it
be the other way around?

AJ: I think the first one, just because I was younger and I
didn’t know what to expect. I learned so much from that first year because
you’re playing at such an elite hockey level. The first one was a bigger
experience from more of a developing and learning stage. My second one was more
of a ‘go out and do my job’ role. I was more of a part of a team with
Quebec, then
as a 16-year-old with
Rimouski, and
having such great players.


Arguably the defining moment of your career has to be centered around the 2001
National Hockey League Entry Draft, where you were selected 85th
overall, Columbus’ fourth selection in that draft. Did you attend the draft?

AJ: I attended the draft. I made the trip down to Sunrise, Florida.


A little bit different weather then what you’re used to right now in
Syracuse, I’d imagine.

AJ: It was tough, it was a tough trip, but I figured I’d
better make the journey to


Did you have any reaction when you heard your name called? Was it a sense of
eagerness, or maybe even a sense of relief?

AJ: It was total relief. When you go to these things,
there’s always a little bit of anxiety involved not being chosen that day, or
in that draft. Relief would be the biggest thing. Next would be the sense of
belonging to a club, and have the club motivate you. Now you have a symbol in
your head to motivate you wherever you are; to have a team like that. It helps
you so much on and off the ice.


Any reaction in particular when it was Columbus that had selected you, as
opposed to a team closer to home with a little more history?

AJ: At that time, I wouldn’t have cared who it was. I was
just worried about making it to the next level. It wasn’t even the next level
entirely. It had more to do with motivation and to be a member of that
Columbus was a
new team at that time and it was great for me because they didn’t have too many
players in the organization at the time. It’s worked out great so far.


You’ve attended a few of the
Columbus Blue Jacket training
camps by now. What were some of your first experiences there, and what did you
take from it?

AJ: My first camp was a rookie camp, and we had gone to Michigan for a
tournament hosted by
Detroit. We
played four or five exhibition games in the tournament style, and that was
something else for my first NHL rookie camp. To play with those kind of players, future NHL players, I learned a lot. It was
tough to get to the speed of everything, but I took that home, worked on it,
and I think it helped me adapt.


Obviously that must’ve been somewhat of an eye opener, to see first hand what
exactly you’re going to have to do to take your game to the next level. What
was running through your mind stepping on the ice for the first time with
members of the
Columbus Blue Jackets?

AJ: I was definitely wide-eyed. The players you see on the
NHL Network, on Sportsdesk all the time. It was definitely
new, you could say at the time for me. You get used to it real quick. There
wasn’t a lot of time to stand around and watch. Everyone out there was a hockey
player, and everyone was the same out there. You just had to go out there and
play your game and not worry so much who was on the ice with you.


The first time you stepped on the ice, did you ever wonder what you were
getting yourself into by attending the camp?

AJ: Well, you think ‘What do I do now?’ You just can’t think too hard about who
you’re playing against. You start worrying a bit, worry about your style and
your game, and I think everything else will fall into place.


ayour first professional contract was signed last offseason. What was running through your mind when
Columbus pitched an offer, and
your agent relayed it to you, and subsequently reaching an agreement?

AJ: Once I heard the offer, it was kind of a relief. It’s
all you think about when you’re first getting yourself into the process of
signing your first contract. A lot of guys aren’t given that offer and I was
fortunate. I think both Columbus and myself were happy
with the way things worked out.


In your first professional season in the AHL this
year, what has been your biggest adjustment in making the jump from Major
Junior to the professional ranks?

AJ: I think the style is something that changes and you
have to get used to. You’re not playing against 16, 17, 18-year-olds anymore.
That was probably my biggest adjustment. It was a little tough. Put in those
positions, it just makes you a better hockey player when you’re playing with
better players.


How have you been able to adapt to the pace of the game? Obviously with older
players, your competition has been bigger, faster and stronger. How do you feel
you’ve made that adjustment so far?

AJ: I think I’ve done okay. Obviously there’s a lot more to
accomplish. I’d like to be better in my defensive zone, and work offensively as
an offensive defenseman. If I want to take my game to the next level I’ll have
to continue to work hard. I felt I’ve done okay, but there’s definitely room
for improvement.


How have you handled living on your own, and not have to focus on school so

AJ: That’s a little different. There’s not someone hanging
off your shoulder telling you what time to be in and what you should be doing.
Living on your own is definitely a huge adjustment to make. Cooking, getting to
bed on time are things I’ve had to handle on my own. I was taught a good
routine in
Rimouski and Quebec. They
disciplined me well, and I haven’t burned down the apartment yet.


How much have your teammates been able to help you out
with your off-ice adjustments?

AJ: Obviously they help me out a lot. When I first got
here, I met Todd Rohloff. He helped me out a lot and
took me under his wing. He and guys like Anders Eriksson and Jamie Pushor, NHL veterans, definitely help you on and off the
ice. It’s little things that have worked for them that
they are passing on and it seems to have worked for me so far.


What’s it like when guys that have helped you come so far leave the
organization, whether it be Rohloff claimed off
waivers by Washington or Pushor dealt to the New York
Rangers? What kind of impact does that have on you?

AJ: It’s tough as a young guy. As a young guy you get to
see how the business works and revolves around you. Those are two guys I
would’ve expected to have all year and the two guys I’ve played with too. Both
guys are now in the NHL with different organizations. It’s just a little taste
of how things work. It’s tough seeing them go, but at the same time you get to
meet new people as well and play with different players, and it’s good to get
that development.


Has anyone stepped up and become vocal about being your next defensive partner,
knowing that your last two are currently holding down regular jobs at the NHL
level? Has anyone begun to think that you are his meal ticket to the NHL?

AJ: I don’t think they’re thinking that! Rohloff and Pushor had enough
talent that they didn’t ride me to get where they are!


Your play with
Syracuse this season has been
excellent. As a rookie you’ve been named to the All-Star game. Your season has
been impressive to say the least. What are you crediting your success so far
this year in the American Hockey League?

AJ: Players beside me. I was fortunate enough to play with
great defensemen beside me, as well as teammates in
front of me. Obviously the coaching staff has given me
a great opportunity this year and has shown a lot of faith in me. I’ve been
played in a lot of different situations, and I’ve benefited from this. I’ve
been given a great chance, and I credit them for it. Hopefully I can just keep
working and continue to play well.


You’ve been shuttled between
Syracuse and Columbus on a couple of different
occasions. What was it like dressing for your first National Hockey League game
and your first shift? Is it an experience that can even be put into words?

AJ: I don’t know if it is possible to put into words. It’s
something that I’ve dreamt about for twenty years now. Just to get on the ice
was a dream of mine. I tried not to put too much pressure on myself, and go out
there and enjoy the time I was up there. I tried to do the little things, but
still just go out there, and that’s all
Columbus had
asked me to do. I think it went well. I was definitely nervous at the beginning
but after you get settled in on the ice, it’s just like playing anywhere else.


Columbus has a habit of recalling their
younger players from
Syracuse, whether it be yourself, or Tim Jackman, only
to let them watch the game from the press box. Is that something that you find
difficult, to be called up but not dress?

AJ: I think that’s good, as an organization, to give the
young guys a chance, a taste. I think that’s going to help them in a long run.
I’m fortunate to be in an organization like that, an organization that has
room. I think it’ll benefit the organization in the long run and keep players


Columbus has lost a lot of depth on defense in recent
weeks, with the departure of Jamie Pushor to the
Rangers, Todd Rohloff to the Washington Capitals, and
now Darryl Sydor to the Tampa Bay Lightning. With
these transactions in mind, where do you feel you fit in to the scheme of
things in
Columbus, both short-term and long?

AJ: Hopefully I can be a long-term player with the Columbus
Blue Jackets. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of their organization the last
three years. I’ve come to feel like part of a family. All the guys I’m getting
to know more, and spent time with them in the summer. You almost become part of
a family, and hopefully in the future I can become a full-time member of the
Columbus Blue Jackets.


Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you since you’ve turned
pro? Has it been a player like Rohloff or Pushor, who you’ve previously mentioned, or perhaps a
member of the coaching staff?

AJ: I’d have to say players like Rohloff
and Pushor. They’ve always helped me out and taken me
under their wing. They’ve always given me a chance to go out and learn, and if
I ever had any questions, they let me know not to hesitate to ask, and they’d
answer them. Guys like that really help out a young player like myself. How else does one learn the ropes, as a rookie?


How would you describe your style of play for those who haven’t seen you step
on the ice?

AJ: I guess right now I’m known more as an offensive defensemen
then anything else. Right now I’m trying to develop the defensive side of my
game as well. I’m a guy that tries to create offensive opportunities, and if I
get a chance to jump in the play for sure I will. I’m trying not to be a
high-risk defenseman and hopefully I’ll continue to develop at both ends of the


Is there anyone in particular you’ve tried to model your play after?

AJ: No, not really. I don’t try to model after anyone. I
watch a lot of hockey, and I watch every defenseman play. If there’s anything
they do better, or any tricks they have, I try to pick up on that. I don’t try
to pick off one player; I want to learn from everyone.


In which facet of the game do you feel you’ve made your biggest improvement on
this season?

AJ: That is hard to say. It’s tough because you don’t
really know what you’ve developed the most. I think I’ve improved myself in the
defensive zone. I’ve never been more comfortable in my defensive end as I am


What would you consider some of your strengths on the ice?

AJ: I would hope to think that making the first pass and
making the simple plays would be two. I try to make that a part of my game. If
you can make the simple play you can get the puck out of your end and hopefully
create some offensive opportunities there.


What are the areas of the game you are looking to improve?

AJ: Pretty much every area of my game can improve. I don’t
think I could say just one area needs improvement, when everything as a whole
can get better. I think I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to develop. I think
being a complete defenseman at both ends with and without the puck. I’ve got to
take care of business. I’ve got a lot to learn before I can call myself an
excellent defenseman.


Looking back through your entire career, whether it be your stint in the NHL,
your AHL season, your career in Major Junior, or even at the Midget level, what
would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment so far?

AJ: It’s hard to say. Definitely being chosen to the
All-Star game this year was something I never would’ve imagined back in
training camp in September. Looking back at junior, winning the Memorial Cup
was quite a feat. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of success in junior.
Right now, though, something like the AHL All-Star game feels good. It is
something that I’ve worked hard towards and feel I’ve earned. Being chosen now
feels good. It wasn’t a focus of mine while on the
ice, but I do feel I’ve earned the opportunity.


What would you consider to be some of your larger letdowns, or disappointments,
as well?

AJ: Obviously not being a part of Team Canada for
the World Junior Championships. Also, last season, coming up short and not
being able to play in the Memorial Cup game. These are both disappointing, but
definitely learning experiences and have helped me become a better hockey


How do you think others describe your style of play, as opposed to what you see
in yourself.

AJ: That’s tricky, because you don’t see in yourself
anything other than what you see in the mirror. I mean, hopefully just a pretty
good defenseman that is tough to play against. That’s what I’d like to be. I
don’t think I’d like to be categorized just by one thing.


How would some of your teammates describe your

AJ: I’m fairly easy going. I just try to enjoy every day. I
think that there are a lot worse situations to be in, than playing hockey as a
career. I try not to take things for granted and try to enjoy every day as it