After the end of Saturday’s Kodiak Alumni Youth Hockey Camp, retired NHL player Justin Johnson scooped up two tiny players, dropped them on top of the goaltender’s net and pushed the net around the Baranof Park ice rink.
The players giggled the entire time, enjoying the slippery ride on the ice as Johnson visibly was gasping for air.
“I had to push them around. They wanted a ride, and it was time to pay up,” Johnson said.
Johnson was one of six retired NHL players in town this past weekend to take part in the third Kodiak Alumni Youth Hockey Camp. Joining him were Jamie Allison, Brad Brown, Dennis Polonich, Tony Stiles and Ron Stern.
The camp was organized by former Kodiak surgeon Russell DeGroote, who has deep ties to the NHL.
Johnson, 38, attended last year’s event to play in the adult tournament, but this was his first time taking part in the camp. Growing up in Anchorage, he jumped at the opportunity to help Alaska youth.
“It is really special that they have a rink here in Kodiak, Alaska,” Johnson said. “It is exciting to think that the game is growing in this state. This is a true community.”
Johnson played alongside Scott Gomez at East Anchorage High School in the mid-1990s, then skated for the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Aces.
After spending a decade bouncing around the lower levels of hockey in places like Idaho, Utah and Ohio, he finally made his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in 2014 at the age of 32. He was the 14th player from Alaska to make it to the highest level.
“I got on the ice, and I felt that the ice was crumbling underneath me. I just couldn’t believe I was out there skating in a real NHL game,” said Johnson, who retired three years ago and now sales medical equipment in Anchorage.
His NHL career lasted two games. He accumulated seven penalty minutes.
“I knew that experience was going to help me out the rest of my life, knowing that dreams do come true,” he said.
Johnson remembers attending camps in Anchorage as a youth, but they were not the caliber of the one on The Rock.
“We are giving the kids a chance to play a sport that is going to teach them really valuable life lessons. For me, this is a treat.”
The other five retired players had longer NHL careers, combining for 1,760 games and 370 points.