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Magazine > Athlete
As seen in the March/April 2012 issue.

Rock the Microphone
Mike Johnson has made the transition from player to broadcaster appear seamless.
By Daniel Horowitz | Photography by Kevin Gonsalves

When Shakespeare penned the line, "The play's the thing," it's doubtful he was thinking about hockey.

But Willy's artful declaration and the history's greatest game have found common ground through one man. That's because for former NHL player-turned-broadcaster, Mike Johnson, to "play" was the thing.

Johnson, a skater once regarded as one of the speediest to ever grace the rinks of the pro hockey, racked up more than 650 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Phoenix Coyotes, Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues.
 

When his NHL career wound down after suffering a shoulder injury in 2007, Johnson crossed the pond for a brief stint in Germany, before wrapping up with two seasons at the CCHA's University of Notre Dame.

Today, it's likely that the "play-by-play" is the "thing" for the 37-year-old Scarborough, Ontario native, who recently launched a successful career behind the microphone.

And based on the early returns, it's hard to believe that Johnson, now a hockey analyst on TSN and the NHL Network, didn't receive any formal training.

"My only real training, as my wife would gladly tell you, is that I watch a lot of sports on television," he says with a laugh.

Ironically, after starting his hockey career with four productive seasons at Bowling Green University -- where he received a degree in finance during his off-ice hours -- Johnson never "banked" on a job as a broadcaster. Although he's clearly appreciative of the new opportunity: "Broadcasting was always something on my mind, but not something I ever planned on doing," says Johnson, who, along with wife Martha, are the proud parents of two girls, Taylor, 7 and Mackenzie, 5.

"I had done some stuff for various television stations during the NHL playoffs in the past because, well, unfortunately, the teams I played on were seldom still playing in mid-April. So, I got some experience doing that and I really enjoyed it. Whether or not I was any good at it could certainly be up for debate.

"So, when I decided to retire, I spent that first summer relaxing, mostly playing golf. Then, in the fall, I was about to go to work in the financial arena. I figured I'd just completely backtrack after 15 years and try to do what I had originally gone to university for."

But, as it so often does in the world of Shakespeare, fate intervened, and the financial sector's loss was hockey fans' gain. Johnson got a fortuitous call to fill in as a sports radio host, a call that soon led to another job. The die was cast.

"Eventually, those smaller jobs led to an NHL Network opportunity, which eventually led to the TSN job," says the articulate Johnson. "So, while I always knew I would like to do something in broadcasting, I never really had a game-plan; it just sort of happened for me, and I know that I was quite fortunate to have this opportunity."

And Johnson has made the most of that opportunity, applying a thinking-man's approach to describing the action on the ice with a level headed calmness, honesty, and just the right amount of enthusiasm.

But compliment his skill and he'll admit that his broadcasting talents are still a work in progress.

"I think it's going well so far," he says. "It's like playing hockey, or like any other job. There are always challenges and there are always things to learn and things to improve upon. I'm working my way through it, refining things as I go. I like working in studios, I love doing the games and I really enjoy the bantering back and forth."

Like his days as a player, Johnson will often review videos of his latest broadcasts, looking for ways to improve his craft.

"It's similar to watching game tapes when I played, I try to pick out things that I like, things that I didn't like, and things that I can improve on," he explains. "Then, I just try to do better the next time out. Today, I also find myself watching and listening to the commentators when I watch a game, far more than I used to. I never really did that before. I try to be myself, offer what insight I find unique, and shed light on why or how something may have happened on the ice."

Like anyone whose job includes criticizing friends or former co-workers, Johnson found that the most challenging aspect of making the transition from the ice up to the broadcast booth.

"Definitely, it was really hard, especially at the beginning, dealing with old friends, coaches and teammates that I was commenting about on the air," he explains. "Especially when I have to comment on players I know are much better on the ice than I ever was. For me, suggesting something that say, Jonathan Toews should have done differently on any given play, or point out a bad decision he might have made, I'm doing so with the full realization that he's a much better hockey player than me. But, eventually, I came to the realization that my job is to offer my opinion and I started to learn that it's okay. I strongly believe that if I say something on television of on the radio about a player, it's something that I would be comfortable saying to that player's face, even if they disagreed with it. I think most players respect that and are comfortable with it for the most part. It's just part of my job."

Even though he's maneuvered from the rink to the sound booth, Johnson's professional goals (not the red light variety) still reflect a professional athlete's desire to compete at the highest level, no matter what the field.

"I've achieved a lot of goals, but I guess I'd say that I'd love to call a Stanley Cup Final or an Olympic Games," he explains. "To be on that stage, with an appreciation of how good those athletes are to be in that situation, would be great. The thing I miss the most about not playing hockey is that competitiveness. Nobody gets to be a professional athlete without being very competitive and I was -- and still am -- as competitive as anyone regardless of what I'm doing whether it's golf, cards or even ping-pong."

Mike Johnson is proof personified that while you can take the broadcaster out of the hockey player, you can never take the hockey player out of the broadcaster. And for viewers of TSN or the NHL Network, that is good news. For fans of the Bard, on the other hand, it's probably a bit of a non sequitur.

For more stories from the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.
 

 

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