Family, a good skate, lots of hunting and at least a modicum of optimism have kept former No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson in North America.
And while family, a strong clutch of Minnesota-based NHLers and plentiful wild game aren’t likely to disappear any time soon, the optimism is another thing entirely.
With the NHL and its players set to head back to the table Monday in New York amid significant pessimism that that two sides can forge a new labor agreement and save at least a portion of the season, Johnson, like many peers, waits to see how these pivotal days will unfold.
The Colorado Avalanche defenseman has been skating with many of the Minnesota Wild and a large group of local NHLers who have for years gathered in the offseason to skate and hang out in the State of Hockey.
“It’s probably one of the best skates in the NHL,” Johnson told ESPN.com in a recent conversation.
That would be lockout skates, of course. But his point is well taken.
With dozens of NHLers playing in Europe and others gathered in smaller groups in their respective NHL cities trying to stay sharp while the lockout sorts itself out, the Minnesota gang has established a highly evolved routine.
The group gathers on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota. Johnson, a Bloomington, Minn., native who played one year with the Golden Gophers before the St. Louis Blues made him the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, works out at the facility five days a week before he dons his skates for the on-ice sessions.
Local college coaches run the workouts and drills for an hour before breaking for a 45-minute scrimmage for which the guys have brought in referees to create more of a game atmosphere.
“It’s a great skate,” Johnson said. “We try to make it as competitive as possible."
Early in the proceedings, the group was broken into two squads by randomly handing out NHLPA jerseys, and the squads have remained intact ever since, with the losing side having to pay for that day’s ice rental. Johnson’s squad is built more to the energy side of things, while the other team “is really stacked,” Johnson admitted.
Still, at the time of this conversation, Johnson’s plucky crew that includes netminder Niklas Backstrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Hendricks, Kyle Brodziak and Keith Ballard managed to sneak in a win over the big boys.
“It was nice not to have to pay for the ice,” Johnson acknowledged.
There is something to be said for the comfort of a big group like the Minnesota one given the ebbs and flows of the current labor dispute.
In May 2011, Johnson bought a place just down the road from his parents’ home in Bloomington. He enjoys hunting and was set to do some goose and duck hunting in western Minnesota this week with fellow Minnesotan Dustin Byfuglien.
“I don’t know what I would do if I was from a small town without a lot of guys,” Johnson said. “I think it helps that basically we’re a group of guys going through the same thing.”
The group recently held a charity game at the University of Minnesota to support Defending the Blue Line, a group that helps children of military personnel enjoy the game of hockey, and raised close to $50,000.
David Backes, captain of the St. Louis Blues and a frequent attendee at bargaining sessions in New York and Toronto, is part of the Minnesota group and has provided insight into what is going on behind the conference room doors. There is, said Johnson, a lot of discussion about the process and a frank exchange of views.
“It’s an open discussion in the room. There are a lot of different opinions,” Johnson said.
As for the recently floated notion that the players don’t have all the information at their fingertips, Johnson insisted that simply isn’t true. The players in the meetings and executive director Don Fehr “have done a great job of keeping us all informed,” Johnson said.
“If you want to go to the meetings, you have the right to do that. There’s nothing to hide on our side,” he added.
Like many players, the well-spoken former U.S. Olympian doesn't like how the owners have approached the process.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We are ready to make a deal. I think it’s a lot of posturing on their part. There has not been a lot of give and take.”
At some point, though, the reality of the situation is going to intrude on the comfort that Johnson and many of his colleagues enjoy in the familiar confines of Minnesota, and he will more vigorously pursue opportunities in Europe, likely in Sweden or Switzerland.
“I really want to play,” Johnson said, echoing a refrain heard across the hockey world.
The big defenseman had opportunities to play in Sweden in October but held off, hoping for a different outcome to the labor talks.
“I thought it would be squared away by now,” he said.