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After a long road back, Rebecca Johnston putting the CWHL on notice

Injuries threatened to end her career, but after six months on the shelf, Johnston is back – and better than ever.
Dave Holland/Canadian Sport Institute Calgary

Dave Holland/Canadian Sport Institute Calgary

It wasn’t long ago Rebecca Johnston thought she was watching her career slip between her fingers.

During the pre-season prior to 2015-16, Johnston repeatedly pulled her groin. Her hip was aching. The back spasms seemed endless. And when medical tests and CT scans revealed hypermobile ligaments, Johnston learned she would need eight injections as treatment, each separated by a two-to-three week recovery period. The rehabilitation would require months, and Johnston, 26 at the time, worried about what lied ahead. “It was stressful and devastating at the same time, because I didn’t know what the future entailed,” Johnston said. “Am I going to have to retire in a year? Am I going to be able to make it though a (Olympic team) centralization year, which is very physically demanding on my body? That was all up in the air.”

After six months of recovery, the lengthiest absence of her career and one of the most mentally taxing periods of her life, Johnston answered any and all questions about her game in less than 20 minutes.

In her first CWHL action in more than 11 months, she had scored by the 16-minute mark. Little more than two minutes later, Johnston scored again, this time shorthanded. And to round out her performance, she later added a power-play assist. The Johnston Comeback Tour was in full effect after one game, and it continued on as she paced the Calgary Inferno to a Clarkson Cup title before shipping off to the World Championship and leading the silver medal-winning Canadian attack with two goals and seven points in five games. “The one thing I was scared about was me coming back and not being 100 percent and not being able to play 100 percent for my team,” Johnston said. “I was happy with the outcome and that the process of me getting back to 100 percent had worked.”

Johnston wasn’t simply satisfied to be back and productive, however. The time away made her more motivated than ever, and the fire to cement her place as one of the game’s elite players only raged hotter. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Johnston’s three-goal, five-point effort made her one of Canada’s top scorers, and in her first full season in the CWHL since 2014-15, she has put the league on notice.

Entering the Canada-USA Rivalry Series in mid-February, Johnston’s 13 goals and 35 points in 24 games put her third in CWHL scoring and only three points shy of a new career best. “I was confident coming into the season,” Johnston said. “I had a great year last year, and I feel like I’m continuously improving. I’m learning so much every year, and during the centralization year I feel I learned a lot because there were so many talented athletes and knowledgable coaches.”

Learning can only take a player so far though. It’s hard work that separates the lions from the lambs, and that’s something Johnston knows well. She’s the first one on the ice, fine-tuning her game, and she doesn’t leave the sheet until she’s told she must. And then the work continues. “I watch a lot of video, as well,” Johnston said. “So, if I see I’m struggling with a certain shot or I need to improve my quickness out of the corners, I’ll practise that and try to see improvement throughout the year.”

On a stacked Calgary squad that won 20 of 25 games, Johnston lines up alongside fellow Canadian Olympians Brianne Jenner, Blayre Turnbull and Brigette Lacquette. She’s also sharing the ice and a dressing room with Team USA foes Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy and Alex Rigsby. There was concern on Johnston’s part that it would be difficult to get past the deep-seated rivalry. “They were so talented, so I knew that maybe I wouldn’t like them off the ice, but they would definitely push me and I’d learn a lot from them,” Johnston laughed. “But we’re actually all really close and good friends, so it worked out well.”

And the relationship she’s built with her teammates – Canadian, American or otherwise – is what Johnston hopes can propel this team once they’re done at the Rivalry Series. “We want to win a Clarkson Cup again,” Johnston said. “Each and every game is important for us to improve. We need to be at our best during that final and make it there.”

WHAT WE LEARNED

The Canada-U.S. rivalry series was aptly named. The three-game showcase saw the world’s best teams battle again for women’s hockey supremacy, with Canada exacting some revenge for losses at the 2018 Olympics and 4 Nations Cup. Here’s what we learned:

1. The next generation is here. Canada’s Laura Stacey wowed with a three-point performance. Renata Fast’s output from the back end was impressive. The U.S.’s Hannah Brandt appears ready to solidify her place as a top contributor. Blueliner Savannah Harmon looks like a future national team leader.

2. Shannon Szabados, 32, won’t relinquish her role as Canada’s No. 1 netminder anytime soon. She might be uncertain about participating in the 2022 Olympics, but a show-stealing 38-save performance in Game 3 was proof she’s still at the top of her game.

3. Success in the pro leagues is opening opportunities for overlooked talent. CWHL star Ann-Sophie Bettez cracked the Canadian team for the first time, while the U.S. brought NWHL leading scorer Hayley Scamurra to the showcase. Neither looked out of place, and both should be on the World Championship radar.

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