CHICAGO – Notre Dame junior defenseman Stephen Johns feels as if some of his classmates from Chicago treat him differently because he’s a Chicago Blackhawks prospect.
“I tend to get a little more attention from some of my buddies who are from Chicago because a lot of kids from Chicago go to Notre Dame,” said Johns, who is from Pennsylvania. “It’s kind of fun to talk to them about it. But they don’t understand the whole thing about it and how much work it takes to play at that level.”
Since being drafted in the second round by the Blackhawks in 2010, Johns has learned some of the realities of professional hockey. For one, he knows he still has a lot to prove before he’s skating for the Blackhawks at the United Center.
“Hopefully, I can play there one day,” Johns said. “I know it’s a long ways away. I try not to focus on that too much. I’m focused on what I have to do at Notre Dame first.”
While the Hawks are taking on the Los Angeles Kings at the United Center on Sunday, Johns will be skating not too far from Madison Avenue. He and Notre Dame face Miami (Ohio) as part of the Hockey City Classic college hockey doubleheader at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon.
Johns was excited for the opportunity.
“Since they started playing the outdoor games in the NHL, it’s always been something you watch every year,” Johns said. “You think to yourself of how incredible it would be to experience something like that. We’re fortunate enough to be at a university where they’re giving us the opportunity to play in that and play in an environment like that. It’s going to be a huge game for the standings, but it’s going to be something special we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
Just as there’s a balance to that, Johns has tried to find the proper mix between being a college student-athlete and being a Blackhawks prospect. On the one hand, he wants to enjoy himself in college. But on the other, he knows the Blackhawks have invested in him, and he doesn’t allow himself to forget that.
Blackhawks management does pop by occasionally and remind him, too.
“They’re here once in a while for games and tell me what areas I need to work on,” said Johns, who likes to pattern his game after Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. “I’ve sat down with them and gone over video of specific games. They tell me different pointers. They’re telling me stuff my coaching is pointing out, but they’re going into more depth because they want me to progress as much as possible and be a big factor for them in the future.”
The understanding of Johns’ responsibilities has been part of his maturity on the ice since being drafted. Johns has especially tried to control his emotions and not overreact to situations in games.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said he has seen Johns make strides in that area.
“He’s an emotional kid,” Jackson said. “He plays with his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes that creates a problem for him. That sometimes shows up for him. He wants to win. He wants to do well so often that sometimes it gets in the way of him doing well.
“It’s been a maturity process with him. He’s made improvements in certain parts of his game. He has to keep in control. As time goes on, I’m sure he’ll get better and better at it.”
Johns has been one of Notre Dame’s top defensemen the past few seasons. He has one goal and 12 assists, a plus/minus rating of plus-eight and 34 blocks in 30 games this season.
The Blackhawks took a liking to Johns originally because of his frame, which is now 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, and his defensive skills. Blackhawks assistant Norm Maciver said the organization feels good about where he’s headed.
“What attracted us to Johns was the size and physical presence he brought to the game,” Maciver said. “Since we drafted him, he has been at Notre Dame for three years, and we are very pleased with his progress. He is an important part of their team.”
Jackson thought Johns had the potential to be a defenseman for the Blackhawks one day.
“He’s a real solid kid,” Jackson said. “He’s physically built. He has a great body for professional hockey some day. He has a physical presence. He’s not afraid to hit or get hit. He has the skill set that kids at that size don’t have. His skating is improving. He’s not a bad skater. He can make decisions with the puck, pretty good hands, good shot.
“It’s almost like getting him to finishing school and improve in those areas and help be a real solid defenseman.”