Blue-collar star

The outside temperature was well on the down side of zero as the shrill sounds of the alarm clock pierced the pre-dawn darkness.

Just hours earlier, Adam Johnson had been the man in the spotlight, shooting and passing through defenders while leading his Helena Bighorns junior hockey team to its latest conquest.

But now those heroics were just a memory. Ahead lay yet another game, another chance to shine on the ice. But before that time arrived, there was work to be done. And Adam Johnson has never been one to shy away from hard work.

The hands that so deftly stick-handled the puck would drive nails, hang drywall and perform an assortment of mundane, yet essential, tasks in the building of someone else’s dream home.

By day, as a worker for Sysum Construction, a Montana City builder of custom homes, Johnson is just another man on a different sort of team, currently near completion of a two-story home in south Helena.  By night, the 20-year-old center is well on his way to building a reputation as one of the most dynamic players in the Northern Pacific Hockey League.

“I go from eight in the morning till two in the afternoon, to practice from 2:45 to 5:30, go home, eat,” said Johnson, admitting the grueling schedule has taken its toll. “The construction guys usually have Saturdays off, Friday nights off. I have a game Friday night, a game Saturday night. Sunday’s my one day that I don’t have anything going on. It wears on you, that’s for sure.”

Perhaps the other five teams in the NorPac’s America West Division can hope the schedule will do what they have heretofore been unable to — slow down the 5-foot-10, 165-pound center.

A blue-collar type player, Johnson is enjoying a breakout year offensively in this, his third season with the Bighorns. He leads the team and is third in the NorPac in scoring with 49 points (21 G, 28 A) and is close to setting personal career highs in both goals (25) and points (52) with almost half a season remaining.

He’s recorded points in 22 of the team’s 26 games, with 14 multi-point games.

 “Adam played very well his first year here as a rookie,” Bighorns coach Scott Cunningham said. “He came in and bounced around the first and second lines and really did a great job of killing penalties. Last year, he bounced around the first and second line. … And, obviously, he’s off to a great start this year as far as points and his penalty kill.”

On a team that lost its top four scorers from a season ago, Johnson knew he would be counted on to contribute more offensively.

“Last year, we had so much firepower up front that a guy like Adam could, in a small way, sit back and let the other guys do it,” Cunningham said. “This year, he knew he was going to have to be that guy.”

Johnson and the first-place Bighorns (25-1, 50 points) are riding a 15-game winning streak into tonight’s 7:35 home contest against Butte at the Helena Ice Arena. It’s the first game of a three-in-three nights stretch that will take the team to the much-anticipated Christmas break.

For Johnson, that means a trip home to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he first began playing roller hockey at the age of 6. It was in roller hockey that he developed his strong puck-handling and protection skills. He switched from the hardwood to the ice six years later, playing on a series of peewee and bantam teams in the Bay Area before coming to Helena two years ago.

“It’s been a really fun place to play,” he said. “I live with a couple of guys that have played juniors elsewhere and they say it’s probably one of the best towns to play in. It’s so small and the team’s very tight knit.”

As part of a team that has won four NorPac titles in the past five seasons, Johnson had to earn his ice time.

“I had to battle my rookie year every day in practice to get in the lineup. I’ve always tried to be the skill type. To come here, I realized I had to change my game if I wanted to play.

“The last couple of years we’ve had a lot of really skilled forwards up front,” he recalled. “My whole thing was to be a shutdown line.”

Even now, while playing on the top offensive line with Alec Burks and Nolan Grauer, Johnson takes tremendous pride in his defense.

“He’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league,” Cunningham said. “He still plays against everybody’s top lines most nights and still slows them down and still has the opportunity to put the puck in the net.”

Johnson is third in the NorPac with seven powerplay goals. More impressively, he is tied for the league lead with six shorthanded goals and is a major reason why Helena has the league’s best penalty kill at 94.1 percent. The Bighorns not allowed a powerplay goal in their last 38 times shorthanded and just one in the last 93 chances.

“I’ve always been pretty good at that,” Johnson said. “One of the things that I pride myself on is being able to shut down the other team’s power play.

“It’s just pressuring them to make a mistake,” he said. “The more you pressure them, the more likely they’re going to be throwing the puck away for your guys to get it.”

As for the short-handed goals?

“If I get that opportunity, I’m going to go for it,” he said.

As his scoring numbers have risen, his penalty minutes have declined, down from 64 his rookie year to just six thus far this season.

Cunningham’s decision to pair Johnson with Burks and Grauer has benefitted all three players. “We seem to play pretty well together and we have good chemistry,” said Grauer, who is also having a breakout year with career highs in goals (12) and points (36). “I always feed him the puck and he seems to bury more than me.”

Johnson has been a part of two straight Cascade Cup champions and twice played in the national tournament.  He’s hoping to complete that hat trick before his junior career ends.

After that, Johnson plans to enroll in a California junior college with the hopes of perhaps playing collegiate hockey.

“I’ll never be done with hockey,” he said. “I’ll be coaching or doing something.”