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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Day 2 of USA camp: Erik Johnson has a lot to prove in new NHL season

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- Although every one of the 34 players invited to the U.S. men's Olympic orientation camp has something to prove on some level, it's hard to imagine anyone with more motivation than St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson.

Johnson, the first overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, suffered a freak knee injury during a team golf outing on the eve of training camp a year ago. He never played a game in 2008-09.

"It was awful. When I hurt my knee, I really didn't think it was going to be 'torn ACL, out for the year.' I thought I maybe sprained it," he told on Tuesday. "It didn't really affect me when it happened. I was just kind of like, 'This is kind of weird.'

"Then I got the MRI and they were like, 'Yup, you tore your ACL.' I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' So that was devastating."

Johnson is an intriguing figure for USA Hockey's Olympic brain trust.

Quite simply, Johnson is massive. He is 6-foot-4 and has added some 13 pounds from a year ago and tips the scales at an imposing 238 pounds.

"I've beefed up a considerable amount," he said. "I've had a lot of time to do it."

Johnson has been skating since May and was on the ice three times a week during the summer, biding his time for the start of the coming season and a chance to put his nightmare behind him.

If he remains healthy, there is no reason to suggest he won't be an integral part of an American defensive corps that will have only one former Olympian, Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings.

As for Johnson's golf game, well, there isn't one, even though he'll occasionally get ribbed about his unfortunate outing last fall.

"It's kind of been so long, it's faded off a little bit," he said. "But I hear it every now and then, but that stuff doesn't bother me. I'd do the same thing if it happened to someone else. I don't really care. It's not going to bother me at all."

Johnson has not played golf since that fateful day and doesn't plan on playing any time soon, words that will no doubt warm Blues president John Davidson's heart.

"I said I was going to take the summer off and not worry about anything except hockey this summer and get a year in before I do any extracurriculars," Johnson said.

New home, new language

Scott Gomez is embracing his new hockey life in Montreal and will be doing his best to assimilate into the bilingual community. To that end, Gomez will be starting French lessons next week.

Gomez, who had never played for a Canadian team prior to being traded to the Habs this offseason, said it was his former coach in New Jersey, Larry Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman who played with the Canadiens, who often mentioned that if anyone ended up playing in Montreal, they owed it to the fans to learn French.

It is advice Gomez remembered.

Gomez, from Anchorage, Alaska, speaks some Spanish and is concerned about the difficulties he's going to have not rolling his R's with his new second language.

Bonne chance.

Take us out to the ballgame

Three-time Olympian Mike Modano was scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Tuesday's Chicago White Sox game along with the Chicago Blackhawks' Dustin Byfuglien.

Modano, the former captain of the Dallas Stars, said it's not the first time he's thrown out the first pitch at a ballgame; he's done so before at Texas Rangers games. He seemed a bit miffed when someone asked if he'd ever thrown one into the dirt.

"No, I played a little baseball," Modano said. "I think I have the fundamentals down and the confidence to throw the ball."

OK, then.

Reaching out to local kids

Each of the 34 players attending the orientation camp donated 15 sets of starter equipment to help disadvantaged youth in the community of their choice.

The equipment was purchased through the NHL Players' Association's successful Goals and Dreams fund that has helped 13,000 youngsters in 19 countries -- who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to play -- enjoy the game of hockey .

To mark the occasion, 35 youngsters were given the new equipment and took a turn on the ice with the U.S. Olympic hopefuls in this suburban Chicago rink.

The donation was made through the nonprofit OneGoal group, which includes hockey stakeholders like the NHLPA, NHL, NHL alumni and hockey equipment manufacturers. The group targets young players between the ages of 4 and 8 and helps them get starter kits like the ones handed out Tuesday, helping to alleviate the sometimes cost-prohibitive nature of the game.