Matt Johnson hails from the state of 10,000 lakes, but for him, it’s the state of 10,000 rinks.
“Rinks are everywhere, in the backyard, across the street, really just all over. That’s just how home is,” Johnson said.
A native of Stillwater, Minn., just about 30 minutes east of Minneapolis, Johnson said hockey has always been in his nature.
“I started at 3 years old. We had a rink in the backyard that my dad built,” Johnson said. “I was kind of just thrown out there and had to figure it out.”
Johnson has traded his backyard rink for Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center, and is now a senior assistant captain for the Buckeye men’s hockey team.
Even with a slew of unfortunate events, including injuries and key losses, putting the Buckeyes at fifth in the Big Ten, Johnson has shined as a leader on the ice.
After the team’s month-long winter break, Johnson returned on a hot streak, scoring a total of four goals in the Buckeyes’ win-tie series against Mercyhurst University. Johnson continued to be a huge asset for the Buckeyes (7-15-2, 2-8-0) when they faced the Michigan Wolverines in a 10-6 loss on Jan. 16. Johnson scored two goals in the final periods to grant the Buckeyes a fighting chance against the Maize and Blue.
The forward is tied for third on the team in points with 14 and is second in goals with 10, sitting just behind junior forward Anthony Greco (13).
Coach Steve Rohlik described Johnson as a hard-working player who can lead the team toward success.
“Good things follow people that work hard and do (the) right things and he certainly is the definition of that, he is the epitome of that, I think that’s a big reason why we put a letter on his jersey,” Rohlik said.
Rohlik added Johnson “exemplifies what we want as an Ohio State Buckeye and it’s nice to see him get rewarded.”
“He would be the first guy to credit the guys that are on the ice with him, but when you work as hard as he does and you get in the dirty areas, you’re going to have some success,” Rohlik said.
While he’s become a leader at the collegiate level, it all started for Johnson, who described himself as a ball of energy as a child, when his mother decided hockey could be a way for him to calm down.
“My dad traveled a lot for work, and I was just a handful as a kid, especially for my mom, so they thought maybe it would make me tone down a bit,” he said.
An energetic and aggressive player, Johnson knew early that hockey was going to be a huge part of his life.
“It really hit me bantam year, I just blossomed as a player and it was then that we (my parents and I) realized I had a chance at doing something special,” he said.
Johnson said he started taking hockey more seriously at age 13, and then decided to leave high school his junior year.
From there, Johnson moved on to Waterloo, Iowa, to play for the USHL Waterloo Black Hawks before moving to Kearney, Neb., with the USHL Tri-City Storm, where he joined now-OSU teammate and classmate Darik Angeli.
But hockey isn’t Johnson’s only passion. In the summer and during the off-season, he dabbles in the world of truck restoration.
“I’ve always been into cars even at a young age. My first truck was a diesel, that’s how I actually got into working on trucks. I still have it and it has always been my obsession,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, the rest of the season is now critical and could determine amount of time he has left on the ice.
“You know it just depends upon how the season goes, we will see what happens with other (professional) teams. Maybe go play for another year or two,” Johnson said.
For now, he can look forward to a rematch with Wisconsin (2-18-4, 0-8-2) after the Badgers beat the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game last season.
“This is our rival team, rival school, a team that beat us in the Big Ten Championships last year. We still aren’t over that. The guys remember it, so this will be a good home start,” junior defender Sam Jardine said.
As for the mentality behind the weekend’s game, Johnson said he looks for the team to enjoy its time on the ice.
“We just have to come to the rink smiling and laughing and remember that we are supposed to be having fun and when you have fun, that’s when things click,” Johnson said. “When you’re not stressed or not dropping the stick, things tend to happen a lot better for you.”
The Buckeye are set to take on the Badgers at the Schottenstein Center on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.