Niedermayer and Johnson had nearly identical backgrounds. They rose through the NHL at a similar pace, spending significant chunks of their careers in Southern California. They settled in the area after retiring, and had sons who played together on Johnson’s teams.
Yet, Johnson had a nontraditional coaching style, putting an emphasis on individual skills, competition and controlled freedom for his players, ideas that are common in the game today but ran counter to the old-school ethos Johnson and Niedermayer knew growing up.
“All sorts of drills,” Niedermayer said with a laugh, having helped coach some of Johnson’s teams over the years. “The amount of apparatuses and different things he would throw on the ice at practice, it took us five minutes to get stuff out there and five minutes to get it back off. Tires, sticks, little nets and big nets, all sorts of different things, just to make obstacles, to force the kids to do different things.”
It turned out that Johnson, now the director of coaches for the Jr. Ducks and a player development coach in the Kings organization, was just ahead of the curve. He fathered the Jr. Ducks’ program to prominence, helping produce the two Southern California prospects expected to become early picks in the NHL draft on Friday and Saturday.
“I’ll see Cam being drafted, or Ryan being drafted, and I’ll think of them as the little fellas that were mites or squirts,” said Johnson, who coached six other Jr. Ducks players who are committed to NCAA programs, including Niedermayer’s son, Jackson. “You look back and see how much they’ve grown over the years, how much they’ve matured.”
York’s hockey career began on the makeshift roller rink his parents built in his Orange County backyard. Once he transitioned to the ice, “everybody would be a little bit in awe of what he would do,” Craig Johnson said.
At age 14, York, a defenseman, went to prestigious Minnesota prep academy Shattuck St. Mary’s and totaled more than 100 points in two seasons. From there, he starred for the U.S National Team Development Program, committed to a scholarship offer from Michigan, and flew up draft boards.
A late bloomer physically, Ryan’s path wasn’t as direct. Though the puck-moving defenseman helped the Jr. Ducks’ 16-and-under team reach the semifinals at Nationals and led his Santa Margarita Catholic High team to a national championship, he entered last season unsure of his draft prospects. But he recorded 33 points for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League, keying the team’s title run. Scouts finally started taking notice.
“We were able to push each other,” Ryan, who is committed to Minnesota, his father’s alma mater, said of his Jr. Ducks days. “We were all really skilled, and we all worked really hard. It was awesome growing up with those players.”
Craig Johnson, one of the players acquired by the Kings from St. Louis in the Wayne Gretzky trade in 1996, doesn’t want credit for his players’ success. But the early impact he made on their careers is unmistakable. He was a firm but fair coach, according to York. Stricter at the rink than at home, Ryan said.
Johnson kept practices upbeat, pushing his players without crossing any lines. A common saying of his back then — “You get what you work for, not what you wish for” — summed up his philosophy well.
“What really stood out was his passion for it,” Niedermayer said. “And his open-mindedness to all different ideas of how to become a better hockey player.”
Those coaching ambitions took shape during Johnson’s last professional season in Salzburg, Austria, in 2007-08. Skating with his club’s under-17 squad while he waited for his work visa to go through, he saw kids half his age flash fundamentals he never fully developed.
“It was more about letting the kids play more,” Johnson said. “Letting them figure out things on their own through trial-and-error, giving them more reps, putting them in situations where it’s tighter areas and making them make plays. All those things that it takes to be a good hockey player.”
Johnson helped the sport find a heartbeat in Southern California, pumping out ascendant players who could become the new bloodlines for hockey’s continued organic growth.
I hope there’s a kid out there that’s watching me,” York said, “and he’s saying to himself, ‘One day I want to be in Cam’s shoes.’ I want to do everything I can to possibly grow the game. I know what it was like when I first got started out there, to where it is now. It’s come a long way.”