TAMPA - When Erik Johnson woke up with his arms around the Stanley Cup on Monday morning, it was the culmination of a 14-year NHL journey that took him to every peak and valley hockey has to offer.
Johnson likely didn't imagine it would take 14 years to reach the top of hockey's highest mountain back in 2006, as he walked across the stage to accept the distinction of the draft's first overall pick. He assuredly didn't think he would complete that summit as a member of the Colorado Avalanche, either, even doing so by beating the team that called his name all those years ago, the St. Louis Blues, along the way.
Very little has gone according to plan for Johnson since that fateful day a decade and a half ago. But with Lord Stanley's mug now firmly by his side, it's hard to imagine he would ask for anything else.
The wait was worth it.
"That and some," exclaimed Johnson, on the verge of tears as his teammates celebrated their championship on the ice around him.
"I've been through a lot. Injuries, disappointment, heartbreak. But all that matters is if you believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people that believe in you. You can accomplish great things. Just try to stick with it, work hard, and good things will happen. And I'm just so grateful to be standing here."
That Johnson's body even allowed him to stand at all is a minor miracle.
The 34-year-old has fought off the dreaded injury demons from, quite literally, Day One of his pro hockey career, kicking things off by tearing his ACL and MCL in a golf cart weeks after being drafted by the Blues to begin his time in the NHL with a lengthy rehab stint. Johnson would go on to miss what should have been his entire rookie season that year. And from then on, there isn't an ailment that Johnson hasn't battled. Name a body part, and he's almost certainly broken, fractured, pulled, strained, or lacerated it during his over 900 games of NHL servitude.
This was the first playoff run that Johnson was physically able to participate in in over a calendar year, in fact. The veteran missed the entirety of the 2021 post-season thanks to persistent concussion symptoms that stuck around months after Minnesota Wild forward Jordan Greenway checked him into the boards on Jan. 30, 2021. Johnson would watch from the sidelines as the Avalanche dropped their final four games of the season to blow a 2-0 series lead against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Few would have blamed him for wondering if he still had a place in the sport he'd dedicated his entire life to in the years to come.
But, as Johnson said himself, he stuck with it. And good things happened.
The Bloomington, Minnesota native was not a mere passenger on an Avalanche squad that just bulldozed their way throughout one of the most dominant Stanley Cup runs in recent memory. His contributions were vital to the vaunted depth that allowed Colorado to strangle opponents in the matchup game for four series straight -- and coming in especially handy after Sam Girard's broken sternum ripped from their blueline one of its top-four pillars for the final two rounds.
Holding down the third pair alongside 20-year-old Bowen Byram, who overcame his own health issues this season, Johnson's play helped the Avalanche tilt the ice overwhelmingly in their favor across his roughly 17 minutes of usage per game.
At even-strength, the Avalanche out-scored their opponents by a 15-8 margin at five-on-five with Johnson on the ice. They also generated 56.26 percent of the expected goals whenever he hopped over the boards, paired with an even-better 57.25 percent of the available scoring chances to help keep the puck largely out of the defensive zone for the majority of the game's crucial depth minutes.
Without Johnson, the Avalanche do not have a right-shot defender capable of influencing the play to that degree on their roster. He gave them that. And now, they are Stanley Cup champions.
Often, players with a similar backstory and injury history to Johnson win their long-awaited Cup while being stashed on the periphery of their team's roster. They're cheerleaders whose contributions are intangible in nature.
That's not the case here, though. Not by a long shot. Johnson is far from the marquee name that his draft status suggests. But he was right in the middle of one of the most impressive championships the league has ever seen.
It's why Johnson was the first person to receive the Stanley Cup from Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on Sunday night. Not franchise face Nathan MacKinnon. Not Norris and Conn Smythe winner Cale Makar. No, Johnson was the recipient of hockey's ultimate gesture of respect before the countless superstars surrounding him, cementing his name in NHL history and ensuring that every grueling rehab session, daunting offseason surgery, and lengthy recovery timeline was worth it.
"Five years ago, we were dead-last in the NHL," Johnson told reporters as they huddled around him, cloaked in the smoke of celebratory fireworks.
"And today, we're Stanley Cup champions. I've been with Nate (MacKinnon) and Gabe (Landeskog) their entire careers, and most of mine. And to do it together with them is extra special."
After the Avalanche's entire traveling party had filed off the ice at Amalie Arena and adjourned to the visiting locker room for a night of champagne showers and bleary eyes, Johnson stayed behind. He circled the area upon which his lifelong dream had been realized roughly an hour before, taking it all in, before being joined by Landeskog, with whom he'd shared the past 11 years of his career. The two exchanged a few words before embracing for what was assuredly not the last time before leaving the building.
No one knows what Landeskog and Johnson said to each other during that quiet moment in the aftermath of two-and-a-half months of deafening noise.
But whatever it was, you can bet Johnson will remember it forever.