Her pal Tessa Bonhomme likes to refer to Rebecca Johnston as, “a defenseman’s worst nightmare.” And if this season was any indication, it’s only going to get worse.
That’s because Johnston, who already has two Olympic gold medals around her neck, is about the closest thing you can be to a professional in women’s hockey. Her decision to move full-time to Calgary this season was made on the premise that she would only get better being so close to Hockey Canada’s headquarters and all the training facilities it has to offer women’s players. By day, she works part-time for an insurance company, but aside from that it’s all training and playing. Whether it’s Hockey Canada skills sessions or practices with the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, there aren’t many days when Johnston isn’t on the ice.
It turned out to be a great call. At the Canadian Women’s Hockey League awards Wednesday night, Johnston was named MVP on the strength of leading the league in goals (17), assists (20) and points (37) with the Calgary Inferno, for which she also received the Angela James Bowl as the CWHL’s top scorer. At just 25, Johnston continues to carve her path in the women’s game and is part of a group of young Canadian players who pick up the torch at some point from the veterans and lead Canada on the world stage.
Speaking of which, Johnston will get a chance to do just that in three weeks at the World Women’s Championship in Sweden. Canada’s roster for the tournament has not been named yet, but it would be a shock if Johnston were not one of the first players named. And with Hayley Wickenheiser recovering from season-ending surgery on her foot and Meghan Agosta-Marciano taking a year off to pursue a career in policing, the door is open for Johnston to be one of the offensive leaders on the team.
If the Sochi Olympics weren't her coming out party, this World Championship might be. Last year in Sochi, Johnston scored five points in five games for Canada and was on the ice for all three goals, including the overtime winner, in Canada's stunning comeback win over USA in the gold medal game. In fact, Johnston won a key battle along the boards and earned an assist on the tying goal with less than a minute remaining.
“I’ve been on the team for a while and I have to start playing that leader role and helping the younger girls,” Johnston said. “I think the last couple of years I’ve really come out of my shell in the offensive zone and I’ve really helped contribute that way and as a forward, I want to bring that offensive talent. But you have to bring the whole package to be on the national team and help my team win.”
There might not be a faster skater in the women’s game than Johnston and combined with her skill level makes her difficult to stop. At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Johnston is one of the more imposing players in the women’s game and uses her size, strength and speed to power past defenders.
“I think the move to Calgary was a real adjustment for her, but she came into our team and fit in and became the biggest piece we have,” said Inferno coach Scott Reid. “But it was her skill set and her dynamic play that got her this trophy.”
As soon as the season ends, Johnston intends to go back home to Sudbury, Ont., to continue her off-ice regimen and the best thing about that it she doesn’t have to look very far to find a training partner. Usually, the person across from her at the kitchen table will do.
Johnston, one of six children, comes from a hockey playing family that rivals the Sutters. Along with the Olympics and the CWHL, Rebecca played four years at Cornell University, following in the path of her older sister, Sarah. Another sibling, Katie, played both varsity hockey and soccer at Harvard and is completing a residency in pediatric dentistry in Boston. Older brother Jacob played four years at Dalhousie University and is a defenseman with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL and younger brother Ryan is a defenseman at Colgate University. Steven, the youngest, played Jr. A hockey up until last season.
Combining her part-time job, her status as a carded athlete and endorsements, Johnston is able to make it work. And while women continue to plow ahead in their quest to some day be able to play full-time, Johnston is at the stage of her life where she can make playing and training her top priority. And it’s showing on the ice.
“Right now I want to go for another Olympics,” Johnston said. “But each year you have to perform. I love playing and I still want to pursue it and I’ll go as long as I can.”
Brianna Decker of the Boston Blades, who scored all three goals in her team’s 3-0 win over the Toronto Furies in the first game of the Clarkson Cup, was named rookie of the year. Coach-of-the-year honors went to Dany Brunet of the Stars de Montreal and Charline Labonte of the Stars was named top goaltender. Tara Watchorn of Boston was named the league’s top defenseman.
Play for the Clarkson Cup continues Friday in Markham, Ont., with the final scheduled for Saturday afternoon.