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ROBIN SHORT: Healthy and happy Johnston enjoying playoff run

After sitting out the 2017-18 hockey season, playing senior hockey back in his native Winnipeg after recovering from a heart infection, Newfoundland Growlers defenceman Garrett Johnston has emerged as one of the team’s top defencemen in the second half of the ECHL season.
After sitting out the 2017-18 hockey season, playing senior hockey back in his native Winnipeg after recovering from a heart infection, Newfoundland Growlers defenceman Garrett Johnston has emerged as one of the team’s top defencemen in the second half of the ECHL season. - Jeff Parsons

Rookie ‘D’ man emerges as solid contributor to Growlers following a year off as he recovered from heart infection

Garrett Johnston, the Newfoundland Growlers’ rookie defenceman, was saying after practice this week that friends and family and teammates, too, were all telling him to enjoy the Growlers’ championship series because, well, you just never know when it will come around again.

Nearby, Adam Pardy, the grizzled Growlers rearguard from Bonavista, was relaying the same message.

“It’s sitting at your doorstep,” Pardy said of an ECHL championship, “so you have to grab it.”

Pardy should know. Fourteen years pro, and he’s still looking for his first championship.

You never know. Ain’t that the truth.

And in Johnston’s case, the whole idea takes on a deeper, more sobering meaning.

After three years of major junior hockey, and one season of the Canadian university game, Johnston was sidelined from competitive hockey last year, in part because he found the college game wasn’t for him, but more importantly because he was recovering from a heart infection.

“It was a viral bacterial thing,” Johnston recalls. “Very scary.”

Despite being born and raised in Winnipeg, Johnston played his junior hockey in the QMJHL, primarily because his junior ‘A’ defence coach in little Swan River, Man. was Brad Flynn, who just happened to be the son of Danny Flynn, who just happened to coach the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats.

And, well, you know how it goes in hockey: you know a guy, who knows a guy …

Anyway, Johnston played his three years of major junior hockey, mainly in Moncton under the tutleage of the elder Flynn, before spending a season with the University of Manitoba Bisons varsity team.

And then it happened, round about the spring of 2017.

“I started having chest pains,” he recalls. “I felt like I was having a heart attack.”

By the grace of God, Johnston wasn’t in cardiac arrest, but he wasn’t out of the woods, either.

When the doc tells you that you have an infection, that’s one thing. When the infection’s in your heart, that’s a whole different can of worms.

“I was very scared,” he recalls. “There wasn’t much I could have done to prevent it.

“I was wondering if I’d ever play hockey again, and, of course, you’re wondering about other stuff, too, if you know what I mean.

“But I knew if I got healthy I’d be able to play. It was just getting to 100 per cent again, and that was a long process.”

Through the spring and summer of 2017, Johnston fought off the infection, and eventually got himself a clean bill of health.

He was still taking a few courses at U of M, but had no interest in returning to the varsity team. Instead, he opted to pick up a part-time job, earn a little cash and play senior hockey in Winnipeg.

That was last season.

“I stayed in shape, but not at the point where I usually was,” he said. “I didn’t hit gym or anything.

“I was just having a skate and having fun.”

Professional hockey was the farthest thing from his mind.

Until …

Remember what we said about hockey being a who-you-know business?

This past summer, Johnston was skating in Winnipeg when a teammate — he didn’t really know the guy — asked him if he thought about playing pro.

Taylor Dickin, another Winnipeg native who had played at the University of North Dakota and U of M before toiling in Great Britain for three years, had just finished his first season with the Birmingham Bulls of the Southern Pro league.

And now he was keeping in shape during summer with a weekly skate, along with Garrett Johnston.

“He said the Bulls only had two ‘D’ under contract, that I should head down there and try out,” Johnston recalls. “I wasn’t in the best shape, but I thought, ‘Hey, why not? What do I have to lose?’”

Wouldn’t you know, Johnston cracked the Bulls’ lineup and was signed to a contract.

He appeared in 21 games with Birmingham, picking up a goal and 11 helpers. Meantime, up north in St. John’s, NL, John Snowden, coach of the ECHL expansion Growlers, was on the lookout for players.

Between injuries and callups to the AHL’s Marlies, Snowden’s defence was thinning out.

So he put a call out to Jamie Hicks, Birmingham’s coach (there you go, that connections thing again).

“He’s a guy I’ve come to trust his opinion on hockey players,” Snowden said of Hicks. “I like the way he develops players. He does a really good job.

“Me and Jamie stayed in contact, and we tracked Garrett throughout the season. When we needed him, we put out the call.”

And voila!, a year after playing senior amateur hockey, starting the year in the Southern Pro league, Garrett Johnston is a regular on a team playing for the ECHL championship.

“I think if you would have told me this last year, I would have said you were crazy,” said Johnston, who turned 24 earlier this month. “It’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s been very good for us,” Snowden said. “He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on. He’s really adjusted to the pace.

“He’s got a good brain and he can skate. Of course, that’s always a positive, especially with the game we want to play, which is up-tempo and speed.

“For a guy like him who has the good boots, that really helps.”

Johnston had two goals and 17 assists in 39 starts for the Growlers during the regular season, and entering tonight’s first game of the Kelly Cup final, he has a goal and four helpers through 17 playoff games.

Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort

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