Shane, a true Belfast Giant
How do you define a legend? In the sporting world it’s no simple task. The criteria is ambiguous and opinions, which obviously can vary, play a large part too.
Success? Longevity? One-off memorable moments? Canadian Shane Johnson can boast them all in a decade of service to the Belfast Giants, making him an undoubted legend and that’s why the ex-defenceman is being honoured with a testimonial game at the Odyssey Arena tonight.
He has played a part in every trophy success in the history of the Giants — including two league titles and two Play-off victories — scored the goal which secured arguably the most memorable of those triumphs and retired at the end of last season as the holder of the club’s appearance record.
Professional ice hockey wasn’t a route that the young Johnson (pictured) had planned to go down as he skated on a home-made rink at his home in Brandon, Manitoba.
“I was about six-years-old when I started learning to skate and then started playing what’s known as boot hockey with my friends,” explained Johnson.
“We got sticks, a couple of nets we made out of tubes, and played in the street.
“In the winter my dad would throw a hose out into the back yard. Being pretty cold in Canada during the winter it would freeze and then I had my own rink to skate on.
“I’d always played in good teams and as I got older I had to make a decision over whether to play junior hockey or look for a scholarship to go to university.
“I waited a couple of years and then got the chance to go to Boston University.
“Every year there were guys getting drafted into the NHL and signing million dollar contracts. In my first year there were two, and two more the next year, and that’s when I started to think about going pro.
“I toured for a year with the Canadian National Team, which is a prestigious team. When you get to that level you’re really trying to get a pro contract and I got one in London.”
Now aged 37, Johnson called time on his career at the end of last season as the most decorated player in Belfast Giants history. A concussion injury, which left him 11 games short of the 500 mark, playing a big part in his decision.
The Giants didn’t even exist when Johnson started his career. Now, however, he calls Belfast home and works within a slapshot of the Odyssey.
Newtownards-girl Emma became his wife back in 2005 and they now have two children, three-year-old daughter Jolie and son Jonah, who is almost a year.
“Dave Whistle accepted the job offer in Belfast after winning the league as coach of Bracknell and he called a few of the guys who were on the team and asked them if they’d like to come with him,” explained Johnson.
“Eleven years later I’m still here, with a family now and it’s all down to him.
“A few guys I’ve met have succumbed to the Irish girls! We know a rugby player from New Zealand who married a girl from here, we’ve a friend from France who is here now with his wife. It seems the girls in Belfast collect guys from all over the world!
“Living so far away from home, I do miss my parents and my sister, who lives in Vancouver. I would like them to spend more time with my kids.”
The quiet and unassuming Johnson, who captained the Giants for a season under the coaching of Tony Hand, was never a player to dominate the limelight despite his undoubted qualities on the ice.
Had he been a footballer, Johnson would have been the type of defender that never got his kit dirty. He played with class and grace and despite his relatively small stature — measuring 5ft 10’ — many bigger forwards struggled to get the better of him.
Johnson’s glittering career had the happiest of endings too, winning a sixth honour when the Giants won the Play-offs against Nottingham at the end of last season in his final game, the second Play-off victory of his career after he scored the winning goal against the London Knights in 2003.
“It was a weird feeling. At that stage of my career, after more than 10 years as a professional, nerves weren’t really a factor anymore,” said Johnson.
“We all knew that we could rely on the guy next to us and we just knew we could do it
“We didn’t consider defeat, we were just going to win.
“It was strange after. I was happy to have won, of course, but it was the end of an era.”
Paxton Schulte, Colin Ward, Todd Kelman and Rob Stewart were all part of that 2003 Play-off winning team and they will be alongside Johnson again against the current Giants tonight. As will Jason Ruff and Jason Bowen from the team that won the Superleague title in 2002.
“I’m not the only one who deserves to be called a Belfast Giants legend,” said Johnson.
“The Belfast Giants defined who I have been for a decade and the team has been such a big part of my life. It’s been hard to separate myself from it.”
Our man gets ready to wing it at the Odyssey
The conversation went a little like this: “If there’s anything I can do for you to promote your testimonial when it comes round just ask and I’ll be happy to help.”
“Can you play right wing?” came the reply, followed by a chuckle at either end of the telephone.
Well, as a kid I’d dreamed of tearing down the right wing for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, but ice hockey? That hadn’t been on the agenda back then so I’d never considered it.
Still, the seed was planted — even though it was suggested in jest.
So it's all Shane Johnson’s fault that he has ended up with a complete rookie on the All-Star line-up that he has assembled for his testimonial game tonight.
After a decade of following the triumphs and the tribulations that have hit the Belfast Giants for the Belfast Telegraph the ice hockey correspondent will become an ice hockey player — just for one night.
The name ‘McKinley’ has been printed on a shirt that was winging its way to Belfast last night in order for yours truly to play alongside the Giants heroes of the past, stars of the present and three players from other Elite League clubs who will guest for Johnson’s team tonight.
There will be one other non-ice hockey player on the team too. Former Ulster rugby player Shane Stewart — who is a friend of Johnson’s — is the back-up goaltender.