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Jack Johnson set for return to Vancouver in his third NHL game April 3

On Thursday night, the big American defenceman with a nasty streak makes his eagerly anticipated NHL debut with the Los Angeles Kings against the visiting Vancouver Canucks. Five days later, in what will be just his third NHL game, Johnson returns to Vancouver, where fans still remember the elbow he laid on the head of Canadian forward Steve Downie at the 2006 world junior championship.

He's not expecting a warm welcome.

"Oh yeah, I imagine it's going to be pretty fun," Johnson said Tuesday from the team's practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. "Hopefully they still remember me. I have a lot of good memories up there."

The 20-year-old is hoping for more good memories after signing a three-year, entry-level contract Tuesday. After his debut Thursday and a road game Sunday in San Jose versus the powerhouse Sharks, it's right into the fire for the six-foot-one, 215-pound native of Indianapolis.

Johnson became public enemy No. 1 in Vancouver after he caught Downie with an elbow to the jaw at the end of Canada's 3-2 round-robin win over the United States.

In subsequent tournament games, he was booed each time he touched the puck and a minor war of words between him and Downie followed.

That's what Canadian fans seem to remember most about Johnson, even after he calmly scored two shootout goals to twice delay elimination against Canada in the world junior semifinals this year.

"I guess it's better to be remembered for something than not remembered at all," he said, laughing. "I'll take what I can get."

Johnson is likely to make an even bigger impact in the NHL.

Selected third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2005 draft behind Penguins star Sidney Crosby (his teammate at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn.) and Anaheim prospect Bobby Ryan, Johnson is a rare mix of skill and toughness on the blue-line.

He became an integral part of the rebuilding process in Los Angeles after being acquired from Carolina along with defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky for centre Eric Belanger and defenceman Tim Gleason in September.

The Hurricanes dealt him when they failed to sign him but the Kings managed to lure him away from the University of Michigan Wolverines with a base salary of US$850,000 per year plus bonuses that will reportedly pay him millions more.

"This whole experience is something I've been looking forward to and I'm real, real excited," Johnson said. "I'm a little nervous for it but I'm excited to get going and try and tackle a new challenge here."

Leaving the Wolverines wasn't an easy decision.

Michigan fans would chant "Two more years, two more years," each time the sophomore stepped on the ice in recent games. Seniors joked that Johnson was one of them during the final days of their season, which ended Saturday after an 8-5 loss to North Dakota in the NCAA West regional semifinal.

"It was tough to leave but I also knew at the same time it was the right thing," said Johnson. "I still plan on graduating form the University of Michigan and I'll be back late in the spring to finish up classes so I won't be leaving entirely. Coach (Red) Berenson said, 'I think you're doing the right thing,' and that was real important for me to hear."

Encouragement will come from other places, too. Crosby, who teamed with Johnson on the 2002-03 Shattuck-St. Mary's squad, has left him a few phone messages with congratulations.

Johnson is eager to catch up with his close friend, although he isn't sure he wants to see Crosby on the ice. The Kings and Penguins won't play until next year at the earliest.

"Yes and no," said Johnson. "He's obviously a pretty big pain to play against, he can make you look bad pretty easily. But it'll be pretty special to get back on the ice with him.

"Fortunately I've never had to play against him yet. I think it will be fun."


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