Photo: Bowling Green Athletics
OK, so mad might be a little dramatic. How about driven? Or motivated?
There is admittedly a chip that rides on Bowling Green sophomore forward Max Johnson’s shoulders every time he takes the ice or drives the puck towards the net. There is a certain attitude that surrounds his game that has always been there, just maybe not this direct. He’s different. He’s confident. He’s dominant.
The Lakeville, Minn., native has always been special. Even back in his high school days, when Johnson shared the ice with the likes of current St. Cloud State pucksters Jack, Nick and Ryan Poehling, future Husky Henry Enebak and current Bowling Green teammate Taylor Schneider, Johnson stood out among the pack. Playing under Lakeville North head coach Trent Eigner, Johnson racked up 138 points over a three-year period which also included a state championship during the Panthers’ undefeated 31-0 season in 2014-15. During that rush of goals and trophies, Johnson added to his resume by committing to play college hockey at Bowling Green.
Still, the 5-10, 180-pound forward was looking for more. The better he got, the more people started to pay attention. With every option that appeared on his doorstep, the more advice those around him offered to share. He knew what a Minnesota prep star should do. He was aware what most Minnesota high school hockey stars did. Johnson wasn’t interested in any of it. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Johnson resisted the temptation of staying home to play college hockey and instead remained committed to a WCHA program in Bowling Green, Ohio that had loads of opportunity and a locker room full of potential.
“People might assume if you are from Minnesota you automatically have it in your head that you are going to the University of Minnesota or St. Cloud or Mankato or any of the other Minnesota schools,” Johnson said. “To me, yes playing hockey in Minnesota would have been great, but I wanted to not be like everyone else. I wanted to venture out and see what was out there. Bowling Green was perfect. I don’t even know how to describe it. Everything went so smooth and that just made the decision easier for me.”
Opportunity is a word used a lot when talking about Johnson’s climb up the hockey ladder. Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron uses it often when remembering what he saw in Johnson while recruiting him. That and potential. Good friends with Eigner – who was also Bergeron’s college teammate at Miami (Ohio) – Bergeron already had a connection to Lakeville North. Now it was just matter of matter of closing the deal. It also helped that Eigner’s brother, Ty, was an assistant coach at BGSU. As it turned out, Bergeron didn’t have to do much talking. The program and the campus sold themselves.
“It was just a matter of whether Max was willing to get into the car and come to Bowling Green,” Bergeron said. “Obviously there are amazing teams in the state of Minnesota and lots of good options. Why wouldn’t you stay close to home if you could? But what you are looking for is an opportunity. We had an opportunity for Max, so he and his parents came and checked it out. Then you look at what a young person does with his opportunity. You identify him. You see if they are willing to get in the car and come and check out your program, your campus and your town, and then you put your best foot forward when you recruit him. That’s what happened and it all fell into place.”
“More and more people are wanting to come here because they know they are going to get an opportunity to play,” Johnson said. “Opportunity is huge. In some cases with the bigger schools, you might not see that opportunity right away as a freshman, but here you get every opportunity you can get. It’s just what you do with that opportunity that determines where you go from there.”
But first, before Johnson even officially laced up his skates as a Falcon, a defining moment happened in his budding hockey career. It’s the root of that chip on his shoulder. It’s the match that has led to the never-ending flame that now burns deep inside of him and grows with every workout, practice or game.
At the time, Johnson knew Bowling Green was in his future, he just didn’t know when. Fresh out of high school, he traveled to South Dakota and suited up for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. It’s not that things didn’t fit, they were just different. Used to being depended on each and every night, Johnson found himself sitting more than playing at times. Known as a sniper, especially on the power play, the opportunities weren’t there like he thought they would be.
For the first time in a long time, Johnson started to question his place on the ice. He started to wonder if the road he was on was the right one. It’s not that he was bad by any means (12-8--20 scoring totals), it was just playing out different than what he expected, and with that, his confidence began to take a hit. How many seasons was he going to play junior hockey before getting his shot? Was he even ready for college hockey? Was he ready for Bowling Green?
“I went to Sioux Falls and I wasn’t getting much of an opportunity there,” Johnson said. “I was playing on the third or fourth line. I would suit up most of the games but I just wouldn’t see a lot of ice time. I was thinking the whole time whether or not I was on the right track. Was this going to happen in college? Am I going to get more opportunity? Then when my junior coach pulled me into the room one day, everything changed for me. He told me I was going to make the move next year, that I was going to Bowling Green. It really gave me a huge lift when it came to the confidence I had in my game and the way I was playing. Honestly, it came at a time when I needed to hear that someone out there wanted to take a chance on me.”
What happened during that meeting was two-fold. First, in a matter of seconds it refueled Johnson’s gas tank, from nearly empty to completely full. Upon learning that Bowling Green wanted him the following year, the news spiked his confidence meter and breathed new life into his hockey career. It also made Johnson realize how fickle the game of hockey and the journey of life can be. Right then and there, he made the decision to never leave his success or failure to the chance of others again. From that point forward, he was going to outwork and outplay every player he played with or against. Or at least he was going to try.
“It made me work harder that summer, to prove everyone wrong,” Johnson said. “It is a sense of a pride for me looking back on it. A lot of things went into where I’m at today. When I was in juniors, I never would have thought that I would have been this successful in college. Just that statement from coach Bergeron and his staff that they wanted me to come to Bowling Green that year, that just really pushed me to be the best I could be and train that much harder to prove everyone wrong, to show everyone that they were making the right choice and they weren’t going to regret it.”
And they haven’t. Johnson immediately made an impact for the Falcons and hasn’t looked back. Skating as a freshman in the WCHA, Johnson skated in all 41 games, scoring 13 goals and adding 17 assists. His 30 points were good enough for fifth on the Falcons in scoring and his 13 goals were second on the team. Of those 13 goals, 10 were on the power play, which was most in the entire nation among freshmen. The special team’s guru was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team for his efforts.
One solid season makes a story. Multiple impact seasons make a career. This past summer, Johnson could have relaxed, knowing that his position on the team and in the locker room was set. He could have, but he didn’t. Remembering the promise he made to himself after his rollercoaster ride in Sioux Falls, instead of letting off the gas he pressed the pedal to the floor. He worked even harder. He skated. He lifted. He ran. He did everything he could make avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump.”
“What I told him is not for a second do you take your foot off the gas and think you have arrived,” Bergeron said. “You want to say that in a way where you are complimentary of his freshman year, but you also are cautious of a letdown going into your sophomore year. In Max’s case, he didn’t take his foot off the gas. He had a great summer before his freshman year and he carried that over into the summer before his sophomore year. I think the confidence that he is playing with now he’s earned with the time that he has put in from the weight room to the track and everything that went into preparing for this season.”
“Honestly, seeing numbers next to your name, it’s a good thing, but I think you have to bottle it up and not let it control you,” Johnson said. “I don’t really pay attention to that. I just put my head down, pushed through this summer by working hard, whether it was conditioning or lifting in the weight room every day or skating once a day or twice a day. The numbers thing really doesn’t matter; it’s all about how the team does. We only lost four seniors, so I’m playing with pretty much the same group of guys as last year. That has really helped with chemistry. Yeah, it happens to a lot of people (sophomore slump), but just having the same group of guys and playing on such a young team, having nine sophomores who really get along with one another, it’s easy for all of us. There really isn’t any negativity surrounding this team right now. The whole idea of sophomore slump just doesn’t seem to an issue for us.”
It’s a perfect storm of sorts for Johnson and his Bowling Green team, only in this case, they are the ones causing the damage. Now 11 games into his sophomore campaign (7-2-2 overall, 2-1-1 WCHA), Johnson leads the Falcons in scoring with 13 points (6-7--13) and is currently tied for first in the WCHA in scoring along with teammate and fellow sophomore Brandon Kruse. Five of Johnson’s six goals have come on the power play, putting him first in the conference and second in the nation in that category. As a team, Bowling Green is third in the WCHA standings and ranked 10th in the nation in the latest polls, having already dispatched the likes of Ohio State (one win, one tie), Western Michigan (two wins) and Northern Michigan (one win).
“We are ranked this year, which is something that is really important to our fans, but we were ranked in the top 10 in 2015 as well,” Bergeron said. “The only reason I point that out is because this momentum and this culture that the program is building isn’t brand new this year. We are still at a point where we are chasing teams like Minnesota State and Michigan Tech and people like that in our league because of the championships they have won. We have good positive momentum going and we feel good about our team this year, but it’s time for us to win something. That’s an area we haven’t done very well in and it’s an area that our fan base deserves, and that’s what the expectations are. We feel there is some momentum and it’s positive right now and the players feel it. We hope it’s one of the reasons players come to play at Bowling Green and become a part of this program because they want to be involved in an environment like this – a winning environment and a real positive environment and make an impact both on and off the ice.”
It’s one of the things that attracted Max Johnson to Bowling Green in the first place. The rest is history ... and the present ... and the future.
“We are just trying to prove everyone wrong at this point,” Johnson said. “It helps that we have been defeating some of these big-time programs and it helps let people know who we are.”
Maybe that chip just isn’t on Johnson’s shoulder anymore? Maybe all he – like his Bowling Green teammates – ever needed was an opportunity?
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.