A great game, a better life

12:21 PM, Apr 20, 2011   |    comments
  • Courtesy: Kathy Sandhoffer
  • Courtesy: Sports Star Photo
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NEW HOPE, Minn. -- I came to the game of hockey late in my life, which really doesn't make sense... like a lot of things in my slightly-confused existence.

Despite growing up in a hockey neighborhood, always playing in the street (trying to score like Bobby Clarke and fight like Dave Schultz, I loved those brawling Flyers), I left the competitive skating to my buddies. I tried basketball for a few years, but after fouling out too many times turned to wrestling, a combative sport that better fit my personality. Still, I did a ton of skating on the pond in my back yard, which would serve me well decades later.

I eventually righted the wrong when my first-born was 5 years old, and took to mite hockey the way a good duck dog takes to water. I jumped on ice as a so-called "coach" who was actually more of a cone pusher and puck-picker-upper.

Being part of a hockey program was great... but the characters I met were better.

Chris Johnson was one of those characters.

Eight years after I picked up the game, I met Chris. My Delaney was 13, and due to a major problem with a lack of skaters in both the youth and high school programs we really had no choice but to choose which High School in our district she would skate for.

Thankfully, Coach Chris really made that decision for us.

He was a hockey guy down to his roots, a smallish fella (I later learned his buds called him Elfie) who on the outside looked tough as leather. Chris skated fast, and shot the puck hard.

The moment I met him, however, it was apparent there was a lot more underneath. He had an easy laugh, a thoughtful demeanor and an obvious knack for connecting with kids. When Chris looked you in the eye, you believed what he said as he wasn't a guy to sugar-coat things. When he talked about hockey, his eyes sparkled... making it apparent how much he loved the game that had occupied so much of his life.

My Delaney was an 8th grader, and I was worried about her skating against kids 5 years older, getting her confidence crushed, too much... too soon. Coach Chris told me he'd take care of her. I believed him.  

We decided she'd skate for the Cooper Hawks, knowing all the while it would be a tough rookie year for Delaney and the team. Fortunately, Chris was up to the challenge even though his roster included just a handful of experienced skaters, some who had never seen a competitive game, and a bunch of kids in-between. Coach handled each one differently, correcting their frequent mistakes and missteps with a jab, a joke... or a quiet whisper.

The year got off to a surprising start, with a few unexpected wins sprinkled in with the anticipated losses to state powerhouses. Halfway through the season, however, it became apparent Chris wasn't feeling well. He was run down... felt like he had a constant sinus infection... was short of breath. The coach told me he'd plowed through two rounds of powerful antibiotics and that they had failed to cure what ailed him. I began to have a nagging suspicion that something more sinister was at work.

My fears were confirmed when Coach Chris waved me over before a game at St. Louis Park and confided that a scan had detected spots on his lung. Follow-ups determined it was cancer. He struggled to make every practice and game... but his strength was flagging. It was time to dedicate all his strength to getting well.

Chris and his amazing family (wife Janet, son Adam and daughter Jenna) hunkered down, drew together and swore they'd beat it.  They started a Caring Bridge site which documented their resolve at whipping the disease.

The treatments designed to kill the cancer cells also took their toll on Chris. Web posts that were originally brash and confident became more measured, and then a few weeks ago... Jenna left a message that led friends and followers to read between the lines. The treatments stopped... and Chris dedicated his remaining days to the people he cared about.

I only knew the Coach for a year but it felt like much longer. On a few occasions we laughed over beers and lopsided losses, and discussed strategies of the game he loved so much.

Others, I'm sure, feel the same way. The magic about a bright light like Chris is their ability to make everyone feel like they matter. The times I was fortunate enough to visit the Johnson home during Chris's cancer fight the place was filled to the stud walls with food, laughter and love. Lifelong friends from Albert Lea would make the trek up every weekend, and extended family members and former players would drop in hoping for a moment with the man who had so impacted their lives.

Chris Johnson left earth's ice for good Tuesday afternoon. He lived two weeks longer than most people in his condition would have, fighting for every last moment with his beloved wife and children.

I'll think of Chris often when I lace em' up... as will a generation of women who are better hockey players, and better human beings because of him.


(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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