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Former Gophers defender Steve Johnson gets off to a good start in hockey and aviation




It is therefore not surprising that a mechanical problem he encountered while flying solo a few thousand feet above the hilly farmland of central Minnesota last summer barely phased the old Gopher of the Minnesota.

My alternator, which supplies electricity to the aircraft, broke down. I just flew over St. Cloud and I had to decide if I thought I could go back to Eden Prairie or make an emergency landing right now, recalls Johnson, who was alone in a six-seat single-engine plane at the time. I did not want to go to the cities (twins) without any communication and some of the instruments. I was not afraid because I could fly the plane and I was always in control.

“But I decided to play it safe. I landed at St. Cloud, they fixed the plane there and one of the instructors picked me up later that day.

For Johnson, who skated last season with the Cleveland Monsters, the best minor league team in the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, there are definite parallels between what he does on the ice, with skates and a stick, and what he learns to do. in the air, flying an airplane.

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Every game you play, or every time you get on a plane, you have to be totally focused. If not, it’s when things go wrong, said Johnson, 25, who skated four seasons for the Gophers under Don Lucia before starting his professional hockey career two years ago. Either you could get tagged or something could go wrong on the plane. You have to be focused every time you play a game and every time you go to fly.

Family business

Flying is a family business for the Johnsons of Minnetonka. Steves’ father Scott studied aviation at the University of North Dakota in the 1980s and has been a professional pilot for over 30 years. Scott flew first for Northwest Airlines, and now for Delta after the companies merged a decade ago.

While playing for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League after his time at Minnetonka High School and his college education, Steve looked at North Dakota and Minnesota-Mankato State University, which have aviation programs, but have stayed closer to home.

At the end of the day, I wanted to be a Gopher, said Steve, who earned three Big Ten titles and degrees in agricultural finance and business management.

Thanks to their reserve privileges on Delta, the Johnson family has been able to attend most of Steves’ road games in their last three years with the Gophers. After his first full season of professional hockey, split between the EHL teams in South Carolina and Pennsylvania and the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Bears of the American Hockey League, Johnson decided it was time to try the flight school.

Her father, who has experienced three decades of change in commercial aviation, offered realistic advice.

The industry has been festive or famine, and the hills and valleys are crazy. So the only thing I told her was that you really have to like this thing or not to bother, said Scott. I didn’t tell her about it. In fact, maybe I was bending over to dissuade him, but above all I said that if you’re lukewarm, don’t do it.

Steve was not lukewarm and found a real passion for flight from the first seconds when the landing gear left the runway. He became a licensed pilot in late summer 2019 and celebrated by taking three hockey friends on an aerial tour of Lake Minnetonka.

I had a lot more confidence in him than my two other friends, said Jimmy Schuldt, a former St. Cloud State star defenseman who played alongside Johnson in junior and high school hockey at Minnetonka and the Lancers for a season . There were four of us on the plane the first time and Tommy Vanelli, in particular, was very careful and a little skeptical of everything.

“So I was able to sit in the front and be co-pilot of Steves during the whole trip, which was really fun.

Try to follow his father

Steve found real joy in driving his friends and giving them a view of Minnesota from a few thousand feet.

It’s one of the biggest things I like to take from other people and watch them enjoy it, said Johnson, admitting that on the way to or toward a road game, more than one Monsters teammate has jokingly asked if there was an emergency in the cockpit if Steve could land the plane. See their faces and experience them together. This is the fun part of it.

Hockey is on hiatus due to the pandemic, so Johnson has taken more advanced flying lessons up to five times a week at Eden Prairie Flying Cloud Airport. He flies with his father, acquiring skills such as piloting in the clouds, while you only have the instruments to guide you.

Generally, Scott Johnson uses a Boeing 737 for Delta, transporting passengers to and from the Caribbean in winter and between Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport and the West Coast in summer. But it has not flown for more than a month, as commercial aviation has been considerably reduced due to the coronavirus.

One day, the crisis will be over. And Steve Johnson is realistic enough to know that it will be the same as a hockey player in the future. While working hard on the ice, hoping one day for a spot on the NHL blue line, he also worked hard for the rest of his life, aiming to follow his father’s path to a career with an incomparable vision.

That’s what I want. Nothing is set in stone, but I could certainly see it, said Johnson. I’m increasing my grades and getting more licenses, so I think following in my father’s footsteps is sort of in preparation after my hockey career.

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