J.P. Hoornstra, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
ONTARIO - The Reign's practice is over, but Craig Johnson is still at work on the ice on a recent Monday afternoon. The 38-year-old ex-NHLer, one of a handful who played for both the Kings and Ducks, looks like he can still play.
Johnson taps his stick on either side of the puck as he skates around the top of the right faceoff circle - left, right, left, right - tap, tap, tap, tap - then flicks his left wrist from the half-wall, propelling the puck at NHL speeds into the net.
He's demonstrating a lesson to Reign forward James McEwan, and Johnson looks like he can coach too. It speaks to his dedication that he's volunteering his talents in the ECHL, and it speaks to his experience that he's able to teach long beyond the allotted practice time.
"I learned a lot playing in Europe," said Johnson, whose playing career ended with four seasons (2005-08) in Germany and Austria. "In Salzburg, when I was over there, there were a lot of coaches from Sweden, from Finland, from the Czech Republic and from Russia. Red Bull - (Dietrich) Mateschitz was the owner; he brought all these coaches in. I was lucky enough to learn from a lot of coaches like (Vladimir) Yursinov, the great Russian coach who has (Alexei) Yashin and both Koivu brothers - he's coached at TPS. ... Anders Melinder; he developed (Peter) Forsberg and the Sedins and (Markus) Naslund.
"I've tried to bring it to my youth level, and now I'm trying to bring it to the pro level."
The Reign are one of three teams Johnson coaches in some capacity.
He's the head coach at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, one of the first high school ice hockey programs the Ducks helped launch in 2008. He's also the head coach of 9-year-old son Ryan's team that won a state Squirt B title.
During his brief time helping in Ontario, Johnson has been less visible because he doesn't stand behind the bench during games, preferring to watch from the press box. And he seems to be learning almost as much as he is teaching - which was the goal when he first approached Reign coach Karl Taylor.
"I had heard great things about Karl. He's a great coach," Johnson said. "As far as the professional game, I haven't really been involved on the coaching side. He was nice enough to kind of take me under his wing and help me develop. I watch and learn from him."
The bigger goal for Johnson is to land a full-time coaching job someday, somewhere. He currently lives in Irvine, runs a Mayflower transport business along with his wife, and is enjoying what time he has raising Ryan, 12-year-old son Eric and 7-year-old daughter Shea.
If Johnson is successful in making the transition to coaching, he may have a new claim to fame.
Johnson is one of 10 men in NHL history who can say he was traded for Wayne Gretzky. On Feb. 27, 1996, less than two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Johnson was shipped from St. Louis to the Kings for the Great One along with Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat and two draft picks.
Over the next seven full seasons as a King, Johnson was by far the most productive of any of the players or picks acquired for Gretzky, scoring 62 goals before landing in Anaheim in 2003. He was also, however, often injured, and the post-Gretzky Kings are looking to make just their sixth playoff appearance in 15 seasons.
"People mention it here and there," Johnson said of being traded for Gretzky, "but it really didn't follow me around at all.
"Being in L.A., you don't get the hockey following like you do in Toronto. Even though the fans are great, and the organization is a class organization, you don't get the same following. Nothing I could say about the Kings was ever bad, but there wasn't the pressure."
In a small way, even more under the radar than before, Johnson is still giving back to the organization.