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Former UND captain Greg Johnson skates the puck up the ice in the old Ralph Engelstad Arena. Photo by UND athletics.

Greg Johnson left his mark on UND hockey

GRAND FORKS -- When potential recruits make their visits to Ralph Engelstad Arena, University of North Dakota associate coach Dane Jackson always walks them through the players lounge.

After they swing open the double glass doors and look to their left, they see a No. 9 jersey hanging on the wall. It belongs to Greg Johnson.

In Jackson's wildest dream, this recruit -- every recruit the UND hockey program targets, for that matter -- would turn out like his old roommate, linemate and friend.

Johnson was dazzling on the ice. His 272 career points is a UND record that will likely never be broken. Consider that in the last 15 years, the closest any UND player has come to him is Ryan Duncan, who is still 100 points back. Only four other players in the 73-year history of UND hockey have eclipsed 200 careers points. Johnson did it in three years.

Johnson is one of just six players in college hockey history to be named a Hobey Baker Award finalist three times and the only from UND. He's the school's lone three-time All-American since the 1950s.

But Johnson wasn't just magic on the ice.

He was a rare two-year captain and team leader, deeply driven to do anything to get an edge. If he felt he was too slow or playing too heavy, he wouldn't eat breakfast for a week. If his line scored a goal early in a game, he'd settle down his linemates as they mobbed him. He didn't want them to waste too much energy over-celebrating early in a game.

In the classroom, he was a straight-A student. One time, Johnson returned to his apartment after a math test and told Jackson that he thought he bombed it. Days later, the professor went over the test in front of the class, pulled Johnson's from the pile and used it as an example for how it should be done. He got an 'A.'

"Even the one time he thought he bombed a test, he got an 'A' and the teacher was using him as an example," Jackson said, laughing at the memory.

Despite having opportunities to sign NHL deals early, Johnson declined. He stayed all four years and earned his degree.

"I never, ever talked to him about trying to convince him to stay," his coach, Gino Gasparini, said. "I didn't have to."

Sometimes, as Jackson takes recruits through the players lounge, he'll stop and point out Johnson's jersey and tell part of his story.

Jackson will explain how Johnson was a superstar and record-setter at every level. However, when he reached the NHL, Johnson learned that he couldn't fit in as a top-six forward.

So, he altered his game. He perfected being a 200-foot centerman. He improved as a penalty killer. Although he had never been a bottom-six forward in his life, he became so good at that role that he was only asked to play three minor-league games during his 13 years as a pro hockey player.

It's a message to the recruits: Yes, you may be a star for your junior team, but you should be like Greg Johnson. Find a way to be effective in any role you're given, whether it's a scoring role or a less prominent one.

But no matter how much Jackson hopes every recruit will turn out like No. 9, he knows the same thing that Gasparini figured out through his legendary 25-year run on UND's coaching staff.

"Guys like him, they don't come around very often," Gasparini says. "They just don't."

Last week's news that Johnson died at the age of 48 was shocking and devastating to those in the UND hockey program.

Jackson called him "one of the most well put-together people -- on and off the ice -- to ever come through the UND hockey program."

Gasparini agreed with that sentiment.

"This has been really, really hard for me," said Gasparini, who fought through his grief to talk about Johnson because he wanted to make sure everyone remembered his old captain properly, and for younger people to, perhaps, learn Johnson's story. "Anybody who was around Greg, he impacted them in a very positive fashion. He was a consummate professional. He competed. He did things the right way. He didn't take short cuts. He was intelligent. He was one of a kind.

"There's no doubt, he was the definition of what you looked for when you were recruiting. He was a great player. He did it all throughout the game. But more importantly, he was one of those guys who went to class and did what he was supposed to do academically and he always did it the right way."

An all-time great at UND

During the recruiting process, Gasparini had no doubt that Johnson would be a college superstar. He led the United States Hockey League in scoring the year before he arrived on campus.

One thing Gasparini may not have fully known is how close the Johnson family would become tied to the UND hockey program.

Greg was the first to arrive in the fall of 1989. Three years later, Gasparini recruited his brother, Corey, to UND. Two years after that, he recruited his brother, Ryan.

The family became so synonymous with UND hockey that those close to the program considered their late father, Jim, and mother, Judy, as members of the program as well.

Gasparini stayed in regular contact with Jim long after his sons had passed through Grand Forks.

It didn't take long for Greg to become one of the country's elite players.

As a rookie, he had 17 goals and 55 points, finishing fourth on the team in scoring behind Lee Davidson, Dixon Ward and Russ Parent (Davidson and Ward are two of the five members of the 200-point club at UND).

Off the ice, Johnson quickly endeared himself to his teammates.

"He was a very principled man," said Dave Hakstol, his old teammate and classmate. "No matter what area of his life, he was very principled. He had strong beliefs, they were well thought out and he stuck to them. He was very direct and honest as a friend and a teammate."

Although Johnson was relatively quiet, he had a memorable sense of humor.

One year, Johnson drew Hakstol's name for the team's Secret Santa event. He got Hakstol two gifts. The first one was a fake beer mug with fake froth spilling over the top. It had a note that said: "Hakstol, this is for you, as this is the closest you'll ever get to a draft."

The second gift was a hammer and chisel. "These are for your hands," the note said.

"Of course, that brought down the house," Hakstol said. "It was well thought out, simple, awesome humor. He had an unbelievable sense of humor. I could go on and on about stories like that and how great and fun of a teammate he was."

On the ice, Johnson also impressed his teammates with his dedication to improve little areas of his game. He led the team in scoring for each of his final three seasons.

"I remember my sophomore year, Gino told me to give the puck to Greg as quickly as I can in the neutral zone and just go to the net," Jackson said. "I was kind of ticked off, because I thought, 'What? Am I not good enough to carry the puck?' But I quickly realized he was elite. If you got him the puck and went to the net, he would put it on your tape. I figured out that was a heck of a good idea."

Johnson piled up 79 points as a sophomore, 74 as a junior and 64 as a senior.

Although Johnson had opportunities to turn pro early, he stayed all four years, a rarity for a player of his caliber.

"When I recruited him, I thought we would get him three years tops," Gasparini said. "He was just too good, you know? But he was a man who was going to make his own decisions for the right reasons. As time progressed, he realized it was to his advantage to stay in school. That's what he did. He got his degree and he still had a 12-year career in the NHL.

"He was a great guy, a great person, a great captain, a great teammate and a great player. I was fortunate to have been around him for four years. He had all of the values that all of us appreciate in the greatest sense."

A longtime NHL veteran

Johnson played for the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators during his NHL career.

He played 43 regular-season games with the Stanley-Cup champion Red Wings in 1996-97, which by today's standards, would have gotten his name engraved on the Stanley Cup (41 regular-season games is the benchmark).

In all, he played 785 regular-season NHL games.

Despite rising all the way to NHL captaincy, Johnson's demeanor never changed. He still drove around in a minivan.

"He was just beloved by his teammates," Jackson said. "He was so humble.

"He was so good yet so humble."