Denfeld News

Jan. 31, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

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 this week.

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 was born.

“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 eye on.

“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 said.

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.”

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