When Nathan Johnson was playing peewee hockey in Flin Flon, he scored a remarkable 105 goals in a single season.
When he moved away as a teenager to play midget AAA and junior A, he discovered his skills were no longer exceptional.
So Johnson reinvented himself as a multipurpose second- and third-liner, killing penalties, adding to the scoresheet and doing many of the little things necessary to win hockey games.
“I was just a hard worker,” he says.
He still is. After spending 2016-17 in a senior men’s league in Shelburne, Ontario, the 22-year-old centre has just signed his first pro contract to join Ockelbo HC, a division three team in Sweden.
“Honestly it’s a dream come true,” says Johnson. “It’s everything I always dreamed about as a kid and I knew some way that I could [turn pro]. I had the speed to do it and I just had to work hard and at some time it would pay off.”
Johnson’s big break came this season when Ockelbo requested video of him in action. Drawn to his speed, skill, hard work and faceoff abilities, the club signed him to a one-year deal.
Johnson was born in Flin Flon and lived in the area until he was 16, when he relocated to Dauphin to play midget AAA. He declined to try out for the Flin Flon Bombers.
“I didn’t want to be a hometown kid. I wanted to create my own destiny,” he says.
Johnson later went on to play four seasons in junior A, lacing ’em up in the SIJHL, NOJHL and GMHL. He won a championship with Ontario’s Tottenham Steam in 2016.
He moved on to the Shelburne Muskies of the Western Ontario Athletic Association Senior Hockey League in 2016-17. As a rookie and one of the youngest players on the team, he put up 11 points in 17 games.
At times he doubted whether he could continue beyond junior A, but he stuck to his core belief – reinforced by his grandfather Verne Johnson – that as long as he kept pushing, opportunities would present themselves.
He hopes his Ockelbo contract will lead to bigger and better things, either in Sweden or back in North America. He can envision himself reaching the ECHL, one tier below the AHL.
“I’m just going to get my one year under my belt and just keep going,” he says. “Get there and work my way up and keep going, keep chasing it for as long as I can.”