ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Stephen Johns has probably been lucky in the past.
Injuries obviously happen in hockey all the time. It’s uncommon for players, especially physical ones like the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Johns, not to miss time at some point due to injury. But that was the case for Johns, a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman prospect, prior to this season.
Heading into his professional career, Johns played in 164 of a possible 165 games at Notre Dame, and the only one he missed was due to playing for the U.S. national team. He appeared unbreakable.
That luck has changed this season. Johns has been sidelined three times due to three different injuries this season, his first full professional one. He’s played in 44-of-69 games for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.
Johns, 22, is healthy now and hopes to stay that way. It’s been a different and often frustrating sort of year for him. He’s tried to stay positive and learn something from everything he’s gone through this season.
“Obviously, it’s been a little up and down,” said Johns, a Blackhawks’ 2010 second-round draft pick “You can’t predict injuries. You can’t get too frustrated by them because they’re going to happen through a course of a year. Just so happens, I’ve had a few more than I expected and they’ve lasted a little longer than I hoped. Just going to have to take them in stride and learn and build off them and be excited. Never take any game you’re playing for granted, I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this year.
“This is the first time I’ve ever missed any kind of hockey due to injury or due to anything. I’ve kind of been battling mentally. The guys here help me to stay focused and the trainers have done a great job of getting me back, getting me stronger.”
Johns’ first injury was nothing like he ever experienced before. He suffered a concussion in a game on Nov. 26 and didn’t play again in a game until Jan. 16.
Johns learned more about head injuries during that period than he ever did before. His patience was also tested. As much as he wanted to be playing again, he just couldn’t until he was cleared.
“I think that was by far the most frustrating time of my career for sure,” Johns said. “Because you hurt your shoulder, you hurt your knee, you can at least do rehab and feel like you’re getting better and know you’re getting better.
“With a concussion, it’s just kind of a waiting game. You kind of have to be disciplined about what you’re doing off the ice and just wait until it gets better because it’s something you don’t want to rush. You know they’re dangerous and hopefully in the future I can stay away from them.”
Johns has avoided another head injury, but other one haves caught up to him. He suffered a knee injury in his third game back from the concussion and sat out four more games. He missed two more games in March after blocking a shot.
Johns doesn’t feel cursed. As lucky as he was before, he’s been just as unlucky now.
“It’s just a bad break,” Johns said. “Injuries happen as I said before. As a hockey player, you have to understand you play a brutal sport that you know is physical and is demanding on your body. It wasn’t like my body wasn’t ready for a grind this year. It’s just a few freak accidents. They’re just going to happen. Hopefully I can stay healthy through the course of my career.”
Johns has been injury-free for the last eight games, and he’s been playing some of his best professional hockey. Along with being healthy, he’s also taking advantage of a large roler after the Blackhawks traded prospects Adam Clendening, TJ Brennan and Klas Dahlbeck throughout this season.
Since returning from his knee injury March 6, Johns has had three goals, four assists and is a plus-9 in the last 11 games.
The Blackhawks’ front office has liked what they’ve seen from him.
“Recently his play has been real good,” Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver said. “It’s been one of those seasons where injuries have shortened the amount of games he’s played this year. I think as an organization we’re very happy with how it’s gone. He’s played exceptionally well lately.
“There’s been a lot of change on the blue line here in Rockford, and all of sudden he’s getting maybe more ice time, he’s getting more responsibility. Talking with the coaches and what I’ve seen is he’s embraced it and he’s played exceptionally well. We’re just looking for him to continue on with that development he’s at right now, and we look for bigger and better things.”
IceHogs coach Ted Dent has also seen progress. As Dent explained, there are plenty of positives in Johns’ game. He isn't a finished product, but he's getting better.
“His strength, his speed as a big man is great,” Dent said. “His compete level is great. He has a real good shot. I think Johns just his play with the puck. Sometimes those big guys they don’t have the softest hands. The thing I preach to defensemen is usually your first decision is your best decision and don’t look for something better.
“I think that’s the thing with Johnsy as well as all of our D. When you see a play and the forwards available, move the puck quick and get it to the forward because when you go to Chicago if you don’t give it to [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Sharp, they’re going to not be happy. So, don’t over-handle it, keep it simple.”
IceHogs defenseman Kyle Cumiskey, who has spent time in the NHL, has been impressed by Johns, too.
“He’s obviously had a tough year with injuries, and that can be frustrating,” Cumiskey said. “I think he’s playing really good hockey. I think he’s a great player. I think he’ll play in the NHL in the future for sure. I think he’s doing well. I’m looking forward to seeing how he’ll come out in the future.”
Johns was hopeful he would be in the NHL this season. With the injuries, that goal was derailed. Even now, he can’t help but wonder what would have happened if he remained healthy.
“It’s always in the back of your mind -- always the what ifs,” Johns said. “If I didn’t get hurt, what would happen? You just kind of have to focus on what I’m doing here and realize I have to get better here and I know that. I just have to wait my turn. If that means another year or so, that’s what it means. I just have to be patient and wait for the opportunity.”