People talk about a lot of things when it comes to hockey: the power play, the penalty kill, great scorers, great defenders, and big saves, among other things.
But hockey is about more than just what happens on the ice; it’s about things that happen off the ice that some never hear about.
Such was the case on March 18, 2006, for the Dartmouth Big Green.
It was game day, and it was like any other game day. The Big Green held a meeting beforehand during which they went over Colgate’s power play, tendencies, and so forth. They mapped out a plan and tried to prepare for the last game of the season against the Raiders.
What happened after the meeting is one of those things you rarely hear about.
Senior assistant captain Garret Overlock went to head coach Bob Gaudet and made a simple request.
“Coach, I’m going to sit out tonight so that CJ can play.”
“CJ” is Chris Johnson, a freshman from Duluth, Minn., who had not suited up for any of the Big Green’s 32 games thus far this season.
Now before you think this is Roland Steele going into Dan Devine’s office and asking if Rudy can play in his place, the situation is different.
“Chris is a good player, but we have some good defensemen,” said Gaudet. “We just haven’t found a perfect situation where he could get into the lineup. And Garret came up to me and presented it to me.”
Gaudet didn’t want to sit Overlock; after all, it was going to be his last game.
But someone else stepped up. John Gibson, another freshman defender, went to Overlock and told the veteran that he should play. Gibson said he would sit so that Johnson could suit up.
And so it came to be. Gibson would not dress, Overlock would play his last collegiate game, and Johnson would play his first.
“That’s a true testament as to how close our whole team is,” said Dartmouth captain Mike Ouellette. “He’s a guy who hasn’t had a chance to get in the lineup yet and he’s worked his butt off all season. He’s made every one of us a better player in practice. There were players on our team who thought that despite the situation, he deserved a crack at it to reward all his hard work.
“And Garret’s the ultimate leader. He was willing to give up his last game ever for a guy to get his first game ever.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Overlock. “It seemed like the right thing to do. He’s just an awesome kid and he’s really battled through every practice and it felt right to me to do something like that.”
“The guys really care for each other and for Garret to come up to me and say that he’ll sit out so that Chris can play, I was just blown away,” said Gaudet. “For a senior to show the way like that, and then a freshman to pick it up as well, it just shows how close-knit these guys are and that they care for each other.”
Johnson began the game on the bench, and the nerves admittedly got to him.
“I was excited, I was nervous, I was all over the place,” he said. “I was emotional but I was just pumped to play.”
Johnson finally got his chance. On his first shift, three minutes into the game, he headed out on defense with his partner, the man who was going to sit for him — Garret Overlock. As he changed onto the ice, the Big Green went on the offensive. A rebound came right to Rob Pritchard, and what do you know? Pritchard beat Mark Dekanich for the 1-0 lead.
So on Johnson’s first-ever collegiate shift, he picked up a plus.
“I jumped over the boards and I see a celebration going on over in the corner and I think to myself, ‘Is it going to be like this all the time?’,” he said. “It was fun to get out there and get a plus right away.”
Later in that period Johnson picked up his first collegiate shot, a little wrister from the blue line that Dekanich handled, but still, he was in the game. He had a shot and he had a plus.
The game is one of ebb and flow and Johnson took his shifts as the game progressed. You could tell that he was getting more comfortable out there as the game went on.
It can’t always go your way, as was the case in the second period when Kyle Wilson scored from in front of Mike Devine with Johnson defending. But that’s the way it goes. The scoresheet registered a minus for Johnson.
When the buzzer sounded, it was all said and done. Johnson took his place in the handshake line and looked around. He had gotten it done. His first collegiate game was over and he had won — in more ways than one.
“I feel like I’ve got a good shot to play next year because I’ve put in a lot of hard work this year,” he said. “I got a chance to show what I can do out there and I think I’ll be ready to go next year.”
“He looked good out there,” said Gaudet. “He’s worked hard and he deserved that shot.”
The story here is not just about a kid getting his first shot at the collegiate hockey world, it’s about how he got to the game, how a program, and the players and coaches involved in it, become a large part of the development of a human being. It’s about the genuine thing that happens in the world.
It’s about caring.
“Caring about each other is such a simple thing, but it’s nice to actually see that,” said Gaudet.
“It’s a great story,” said Ouellette. “It just shows how much we all care about each other.”
“I’ve never seen a group of leaders with such character and hard work,” said Johnson. “I’ve got so much respect for them and they’ve taught me so much over this last year.”
“You hope that people coming through the program know what it’s all about,” said Overlock. “It’s not just about wins and losses — it’s about character and building good character, and hopefully it continues that way at Dartmouth.”