Stars pay tribute to late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- For Ellie Johannson, it was less a ceremonial puck drop than it was a puck toss. Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs watched the rubber disc bounced behind them as the assembled crowd at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth chuckled in unison.

It was a moment of levity on an afternoon that was equal parts joy and sadness. Ellie lost her father Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of USA Hockey, to heart disease at 53 years old in January. Kane, Matthews and over two dozen American hockey stars cleared their calendar and paid their way to Plymouth for the first Stars & Stripes Showdown exhibition game on Sunday, raising funds in honor of someone who helped shape them as hockey players and individuals.

"That was ... I don't even know what to say. It still doesn't seem real. You feel for the family," said Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, whose team lost to Kane's 14-9 on a day when the final score mattered little. "There's so much that he did for me, individually, but there's so much that he did for us as a team."

Initially, the event's aim was to raise funds for the Jim Johannson Legacy Fund, which benefits grassroots community hockey programs across the country. But the players asked that the money more directly benefited his family. More to the point, they wanted to help Ellie: It was their idea that a portion of the proceeds benefited the Ellie Johannson College Fund as well.

"That's what we wanted it to be. Something more direct," said Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin, who helped organize the event. "It was really emotional. People are still -- it's a huge hole in a lot of people's lives."

After the game, Johannson's wife, Abby, held Ellie, a sleepy mound of blonde hair on her shoulder. She was still processing the outpouring of affection for her late husband and their family.

"The fact that the players organized it made it so much more special," she said. "JJ was so proud of Ellie. I think he's the proudest father I've ever seen. It's really special that they would want to do something to help Ellie. More importantly, while she might not remember this day perfectly, looking back she'll have the opportunity to remember what a special person her father was."

The game was a sellout, including standing room tickets in the 3,800-seat arena, but organizers couldn't release final financial numbers until the silent auctions for the event -- which ranged from game-worn jerseys to signed memorabilia from stars like Jaromir Jagr -- was accounted for.

But the fundraising was almost secondary to what the Stars & Stripes Showdown exemplified about Jim Johannson's legacy: That a man who dedicated his life to instilling pride and camaraderie in USA Hockey had the NHL community come together in his memory.

"This doesn't happen in other sports. There's no way. This is one of their last free weekends of the summer. They all paid their own way, they're away from their families. They did this, essentially, to appreciate Jimmy, but also USA Hockey," said his brother, John Johannson.

The idea was born at the 2018 IIHF World Championships in Denmark, the first international tournament with NHL players participating since Johansson's passing. The U.S. won the bronze medal at the event, and Johansson's spirit loomed over the tournament.

"We really did rally around JJ at worlds. We wanted to bring a medal home for him," said Larkin.

The team would hand out a hard hat to different players inside the locker room. "It wasn't supposed to be this way, but every guy shared his story about JJ, and how they met him. Something he's done for them. Everyone has a different story. How much he did for everyone," Larkin said.

The Red Wings forward decided he wanted to help organize something in Johannson's honor. Initially, it was going to be a game that featured Detroit players past and present. But when his national team peers caught wind of the idea, they all vowed they'd take part. Soon, the late August event started to resemble a USA Hockey All-Star Game.

Some wondered if these players would be willing to sacrifice the time to travel to Michigan for the game.

From Kane to Matthews to Seth Jones to James van Riemsdyk to Zach Parise, that's what they did.

"You know, it's easy for guys to say they've going to play in a game like this, and it was a nice thought, you know? But they're here. And I'd tell everyone in that room that, as good as they are at hockey, they just proved they're even better people," John Johannson said.

One of the hallmarks of Jim Johansson's life was his desire to make USA Hockey mean something to the players beyond a few weeks at a tournament. That once that jersey goes on, it remains with them. That being a part of the national team or the development program meant you were a part of something greater and timeless.

"This is kind of full circle. This is what they want," John Johansson said. "When a kid goes through this program, and they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, they want them to understand what it means to wear the jersey. Jimmy did. And then you give back. Once you wear the jersey, you recognize the people in Colorado Springs or in Plymouth who grind all day long so I can play in world juniors."

He apologized as his eyes welled up with tears.

"I cry every day."

Was the Stars & Stripes Showdown a day for sad tears or happy ones?

"Both," John Johannson said. "It's a testament that what he wanted, worked. How often do you get in life when someone notices what you do? This is proof that what he wanted to have happen, happened, with USA Hockey."