Jan. 31, 2008
Denfeld hockey player brings European
experience to ice
By Rick Weegman
Jake Johnson made the trip of a lifetime in 2005
when he traveled throughout central Europe as part of the United
States’ U-17 national hockey team.
Johnson’s team spent nearly a month playing
in Switzerland, Germany and at the same venue in Innsbruck, Austria,
that hosted the 1976 Winter Olympics. The squad eventually brought
home a gold medal.
“It was definitely a great experience, and
I learned a lot being around great players,” he said earlier
But there’s one arena that the Duluth Denfeld
senior wants to play in most of all, one that’s a little closer
than the Alps or the Black Forest and one at which more medals and
trophies are handed out: the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
That’s the site of the Minnesota high school
boys hockey state tournament March 5-8. Denfeld hasn’t qualified
for the state tournament since March 1989, three months before Johnson
“That’s been my dream since I was
very little,” he said. “Our whole team has set that
as a goal, and we feel it’s very possible and we’re
working hard to get there.”
This might be the year. Eighth-ranked Denfeld
is 14-7 overall and, at 6-0, leads the Lake Superior Conference
heading into today’s 8 p.m. game against second-place Duluth
Marshall, ranked No. 2 in the state, at the DECC.
A good part of the team’s success is due
to Johnson’s play. The left winger has 22 goals and 44 assists
to lead the Northland with 66 points, and he recently broke Mark
Gunderson’s school record for career points with 255.
“He sees the ice well and finds you if you’re
open,” said senior center Chris Stafne, who has seven hat
tricks this season and many of whose area-leading 35 goals have
been set up by Johnson.
Several of Johnson’s assists come from along
the boards behind the net. It’s not the first place one expects
to find a 5-foot-8, 160-pound player, battling much bigger defensemen,
but it’s an aspect Johnson says college recruiters keep an
“They all say they like my aggressiveness,”
he said. “I’m little, but I play big in the corners.
That’s my favorite spot to be on the ice, which is unusual
for someone small like me. I like to be where I’m setting
plays up; that’s where I’ve made my office.
“I love being down there and being around
the physical part, even though I’m not very physical myself.”
Johnson says he’s received scholarship offers
from Minnesota Duluth and Alaska-Fairbanks, and has visited St.
Cloud State. But he’s undecided so far. He’ll join the
Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League once the
high school season ends. He then hopes to hear more from colleges
in the spring.
“Even though I didn’t take the offers
[from UMD or Fairbanks], it’s not like I don’t want
to go there,” he said. “I don’t mind where I play,
I just want to play where someone wants me. I grew up wanting to
play in the WCHA, but if I have to go out east to play because that’s
where the coach wanted me the most or where I fit in the best …
I just have to find where I fit in the best.”
Hunters coach Kevin Smalley is certain Johnson
will find such a place, and says the university will be the beneficiary.
“Wherever he ends up, a coach is going to
appreciate what they get out of him every single day,” Smalley
Smalley has liked what he’s seen since Johnson
first stepped on the ice with the varsity team as a freshman. Three
years later, he’s only more impressed.
“The most important thing that I see is
that he’s a great kid — and that transfers out onto
the ice,” Smalley said. “I like the fact that he has
matured a lot and understands the game a lot. He’s working
hard on the defensive end, and that tells me he has matured.”