When Tom Fitzgerald got a call from former teammate Scott Walker late Sunday night telling him that Greg Johnson had died, he had one very important question: Who the heck is Greg Johnson?
“We never called him Greg, it was always ‘Johnny.’ ” said Fitzgerald, who was the first captain of the Nashville Predators and played with Johnson for almost four seasons before Johnson succeeded him as the Predators’ captain. “I said to him, ‘Johnny? Like, our Johnny?’ And then I said, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.’ ”
Fitzgerald clearly remembers the first day he met Greg Johnson. It was July 6, 1998, the day he signed with the expansion Predators and was introduced to the media as the team’s first captain. Johnson, who had been plucked from the Chicago Blackhawks in the expansion draft, was also on hand to be introduced. The two became fast and close friends. But Johnson, who had a 12-year career with four NHL teams, had a lot of those in the game. Almost 21 years to the day after he first met Johnson, Fitzgerald’s heart broke learning of his former teammate’s death. And there were a lot of other players in the same situation, shocked and confused how this could happen to Johnson, who was working in financial planning in the Detroit area and had a wife and two daughters and was just 48 years old. No cause of death was disclosed.
If you look at what the Nashville Predators have become, you would be well-served to know that Greg Johnson had a huge part in making that happen. He was an original Predator, one who played 502 of his 785 career games for the franchise, which puts him 10th on Nashville’s all-time games played list. He succeeded Fitzgerald as the team’s captain and was wearing the ‘C’ when the Predators played their first-ever playoff game in 2004. And even though he didn’t put up huge offensive totals in the NHL – his best season was his first in Nashville when he scored 50 points – it might be easy to forget what a gifted player Johnson was.
First, he led the Thunder Bay Flyers, his hometown team, to a USHL championship and a Centennial Cup championship, emblematic of Jr. A hockey supremacy in Canada, in 1989. (The Flyers briefly played in the USHL, but also competed in the Canadian national championship.) He led the Centennial Cup in scoring and was named Jr. A player of the year that season. Then it was on to the University of North Dakota, where he went on to become the school’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time nominee for the Hobey Baker Award. Internationally, he won a gold medal with Canada’s World Junior team in 1991 and won a silver medal with Canada’s Olympic team in 1994.
“He was such a quality, quality person,” Fitzgerald said. “Comes from a great family. He was just a very soft-spoken, quiet leader. Not a rah-rah guy. Probably an underrated 200-foot player. He came here in an offensive role, but was also relied on to play against the rest of the league’s top players. Hockey sense off the charts. Even though people didn’t see it at the NHL level, he had a skill level and hockey sense that were amazing.”
But it was off the ice where Fitzgerald saw Johnson’s good qualities. Those first couple of years, the Predators were a close team on and off the ice. They often went out together – Fitzgerald said one of their favorite placed for dinner was the Joe’s Crab Shack in suburban Franklin because it had a sandbox where all the kids could play while their parents ate – and had children who were the same age. He also said after practice, he and Johnson and the veterans on the team, people such as Drake Berehowsky, Bob Boughner, Bill Houlder, Darren Turcotte and Cliff Ronning, would often hold their own ‘Hot Stove’ sessions, chatting about the game and things such as how many arenas in which they had played.
“He was a great kid,” Fitzgerald said. “He never complained. He never bitched. He’d just laugh. We weren’t just teammates. We were really good friends and we did a lot together.”
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