Three years ago, Garrett Johnston feared he might not play hockey again.
It may have been the least of his worries.
The Winnipeg native, following a trio of seasons in major junior hockey and one in the Canadian university ranks, was sidelined with a heart infection.
“A viral, bacterial thing,” he recalls. “Very scary.”
That was then. This is now.
Last season, Johnston was the Newfoundland Growlers’ top defenceman — his 2019-20 campaign the best of his fledgling pro career, “other than winning the Kelly Cup that first year. That’s hard to top.”
Now the smooth-skating rearguard wants to take things a step further, and there’s a good bet few are counting him out.
Consider these words from Growlers’ coach John Snowden, after the Newfoundland ECHL squad re-signed Johnston this week.
“We all know what he means to the lineup,” Snowden said. “He plays against the toughest matchups. He plays more lines and more minutes than most guys on this team every night. He plays in every situation.
“To get a guy like him, a character guy like him and a player like him back into our lineup was a very big focus for our staff this off-season.”
If there was a surprise Wednesday it’s that Johnston returns on a third straight ECHL contract. There are others on the Growlers working on NHL/American league deals through the Toronto Marlies.
Was Johnston not offered one of those, coming off a three-goal, 23-assist season, his 26 points a single-season career high? His plus-18 was the third-highest plus-minus on the Growlers last year.
He says he doesn’t know — translation: probably not — but Johnston is not about to let that slow his progress through the minor pro ranks at age 25.
His strong play in St. John’s last season led to a professional tryout with the Marlies, and his first AHL game against the Syracuse Crunch last spring.
“Everyone’s dream is to play in the NHL, but obviously unless you’re part of a special few, before the NHL comes the AHL,” he said. “Everyone is working hard to get to that next level. Of course, I’d love to move up at some point, but when that is, I don’t know.
“So now I’m putting my time in, and giving it my best shot.”
Johnston had no hesitation signing on the dotted line when the Growlers presented an ECHL contract. He loves the organization and coaching staff, and like many others in the Newfoundland dressing room, appreciates the fact the ECHL players are not out of sight, out of mind within the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
Mike Dixon, the Leafs’ director of minor league operations, is a frequent visitor to St. John’s, for example.
“They’ve proven to be a first-class organization,” Johnston said. “There’s really not enough good things to say about them.”
Same goes for Johnston.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s sports editor. He can be reached by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort