AARON JOHNSON intends to make the most of his latest opportunity after having the assistant-coach role added to his duties at Sheffield Steelers this season.
Speaking shortly before catching the flight that would see him return to South Yorkshire for a second campaign, the 36-year-old defenceman is pleased to be more involved in the decision-making process.
As a veteran of more than 290 NHL games, over 450 appearances in the AHL and two seasons in the DEL, Johnson arrived in Sheffield under Paul Thompson last season as someone clearly possessing plenty of leadership quality, something reinforced when he was made one of the three alternate captains.
An initial conversation with Steelers’ owner Tony Smith at the end of last season eventually led to a phone call from new head coach and GM Aaron Fox, who asked Johnson if he was keen on taking on even more responsibility. He didn’t need asking twice.
“I’m very excited about it,” said Johnson. “It makes me feel like I’m a bigger part of the decision-making for the team.
“It is something I have always wanted to get into after my playing career, although I didn’t really know exactly where that would be, so this gives me an opportunity to learn from Aaron and get some experience and see if I can do the job.
“I think I’ll be involved in all parts and we’ll work off of each other’s experience but I think it will mainly be the penalty kill that I’ll be responsible for, starting out. I’ll give my opinion on that and work with the guys and he’ll point me in the direction that he wants me to work.
“In a way, I kind of did that last year with the guys, helped out wherever I could, tried to be a leader in all situations.”
Throughout a professional career that began once he was a third round NHL Entry Draft pick back in 2001 for the Columbus Blue Jackets, Johnson has had the benefit of playing under some of the game’s best leaders behind the bench, including former Chicago Blackhawks boss Joel Quenneville, now at Florida, and Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant.
He believes those experiences will only help him moving forward in his own coaching career.
“I’ve played for a lot of great coaches in lots of different leagues and they’ve all had different styles,” added Johnson. “You try and learn from them as you go along, pick up certain things and so I’m looking forward to using what I’ve learned over the last 20 years or so of playing hockey in different countries and different styles.
“I’ve played under so many different coaches over the years, it is hard to pick one standout, but Joel Quenneville is probably up there when I was with the Blackhawks.
“He was hard-nosed but also a players’ coach that demanded a lot from his team. Gerard Gallant, who now coaches in Las Vegas, is very much a players’ coach and just lets you play your game, while trying to guide you as much as possible.”
The learning never stops for Johnson, quite literally in one sense, as his return sees him resume his studies at the University of Sheffield for a masters degree in business.
But the Nova Scotia-born blue-liner admits he is also still learning on the ice, including last season when things didn’t turn out the way everyone connected with the club had hoped for when they first got together almost 12 months ago.
“It is not just the coaches you learn from over the years, but also different players,” he explained. “There are certain things that players do and at my old age of 36 there are always different things to learn.
“Last year, for instance, with all the difficulties we faced, you learn a lot from those kinds of situations - you are always trying to better yourself every day.”
Sheffield Steelers have signed teenage goalie Will Kerlin
The 18-year-old played for GB U18’s and 20’s last year and, for the four past seasons, he has been away in Ontario playing Midget AA and Academy hockey. Prior to that, he started his junior career in MK and Guildford.
"Will is one of the goalies we had up for a couple of sessions over the past couple of weeks," said Aaron Fox when announcing his signing on Friday. "He’s young and has a big frame and is really looking forward to coming in and develop with us.
“I know he’s willing to do what it takes to learn from our goalies here and use this as a big year for him to get some exposure."