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Frozen Four Notebook: Ryan Johnson is quietly making noise on Gophers' blue line

The Minnesota Gophers head back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014 with rock-solid defense that is helped by perhaps the team's most quiet player. Also: Ben Meyers has eyes on just one trophy in Boston; Gophers taking up residence in the Bay State, and Frozen Four broadcast details.

Minnesota vs University of Massachusetts, UMASS, NCAA
Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnson (23) was congratulated by teammates Matthew Knies (left), Ben Meyers (second from right) and Jackson LaCombe (right) after scoring the team's first goal of the NCAA playoffs in the first period of their game versus UMass on Friday, March 25, 2022 at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.
Brad Rempel / University of Minnesota Athletics

BOSTON — The days of the boom box in the middle of the hockey locker room, cranking out Bon Jovi or AC/DC from a cassette to pump up the players before a game disappeared not long after Cooperalls and the two-game total goals series fell out of fashion.

Today, nearly every player preps for a game with headphones on or earbuds in, picking their own soundtrack to inspire success on the ice. For some that means hard rock, techno or even country tunes. Since-departed goalie Jack LaFontaine would even listen to uplifting instrumental music from movie soundtracks.

If Gophers defenseman Ryan Johnson is listening to a Jimmy Buffett tune called “Quietly Making Noise” before games, it would be perfectly fitting for the role the junior is playing on the ice during the current playoff run. It seems that on TV, fellow blueliners Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe get most of the hype, and deserve to do so with their impact plays in both ends of the rink.

True to his reserved nature, Johnson just eats up minutes, plays a perfect shutdown role and even chipped in with a vital goal in the first round come-from-behind win versus UMass.

“He carries himself like a pro,” Gophers assistant coach Garrett Raboin said of Johnson, who was a first round pick (31st overall) by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2019 NHL Draft. “He prepares by putting a lot of work into his craft, and you see that on the ice. He’s just so efficient, logging the minutes he logs.”


When Gophers hockey practice ends, defenseman Ryan Johnson will sometimes spend an extra hour or more on the ice by himself, working on his game solo like a classic Minnesota rink rat, which is odd because Johnson hails from Southern California.

In the overtime win versus UMass, Johnson was on the ice for more than 30 minutes in a game that lasted 68 minutes and 31 seconds. With the Gophers trailing 2-0 late in the first period, a Johnson shot glanced off a UMass player and into the net, getting Minnesota on the scoreboard. Two days later in the regional final, Johnson played nearly 27 of the 60 minutes, as the Gophers shut out Western Michigan and advanced to the Frozen Four.

The extra time on the ice is nothing new for Johnson, a second-generation Gopher from Southern California, who has been known to spend another 30 to 60 minutes on the ice by himself after practice ends, working on small aspects of his game.

“He does a whole skating routine for another 30 minutes and you kind of just let him do it,” forward Blake McLaughlin said, adding that getting Johnson off the ice is nearly impossible. “We tried his freshman year, but he never leaves early.”

Hockey Media Day
Ryan Johnson
Kelly Hagenson / Courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics

One of the more devout Christians on the team, Johnson has been open about his faith and while devoting time to his classes, can also spend hours devouring Bible passages while on a road trip. He is one of the more serious players on the team, but that quiet exterior hides a burning desire to win.

“He’s got a fire in his belly, no question, and he competes at as high a level as I’ve seen,” Raboin said. “You don’t always see it in the emotions on his face, but you can see it in his game play.”

So while second-round draft picks Faber and LaCombe seemingly share the team’s defensive spotlight, first-rounder Johnson quietly goes about his business stifling the other team’s playmakers, and drawing raves from those with whom he shares a locker room.

“Fabes and Comber get a lot of credit, deservingly, but Ryan Johnson is the unsung hero of our group with what he does defensively and his complete game,” co-captain Ben Meyers said of Johnson, who has a career-best 19 points and is a plus-5. “He’s put up points this year as well. He’s a very slept-on player. Everybody on our team knows about it, but he doesn’t get a lot of recognition for what he does.”

Johnson, a 20-year-old junior, is second on the team in blocked shots (44) and seventh in shots on goal (68).


Wisconsin vs Minnesota
Minnesota captain Ben Meyers (left) was congratulated by teammates Matt Staudacher (center) and Matthew Knies after a first period goal in the Gophers' win over Wisconsin on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
Matt Krohn / University of Minnesota Athletics

One trophy at a time is Meyers’ plan

When the Hobey Baker Award committee started narrowing the list of 10 finalists down to a “hat trick” of three players in 2002, Gophers defenseman Jordan Leopold was part of that trio, and became the most recent skater from the U of M to win college hockey’s top individual honor that year.

Follow the 2022 NCAA men's hockey tournament coverage on The Rink Live for previews, recaps, photos, information and more as the teams play for a national championship in Boston.

The Gophers have had a half-dozen players named to the Hobey top 10 since then — Keith Ballard (2004), Ryan Potulny (2006), Adam Wilcox (2014), Mike Reilly (2015), Tyler Sheehy (2017) and Jack LaFontaine (2021) — but none of them have reached the hat trick stage.

That changed last week when Meyers was named one of the three finalists for the trophy, which will be handed out Friday evening in Boston. True to his team-first nature, Meyers has made winning a trophy in Boston his goal, just not the individual trophy.

“Obviously I was pretty excited,” Meyers said of seeing his name on the hat trick list alongside Denver forward Bobby Brink and Minnesota State University-Mankato goalie Dryden McKay. “But at the same time, I didn’t set out this year to win the Hobey. We want to win a national championship. If you have a really good team and you play well, those things come along with it.”

If his name is called on Friday, Meyers would be the fifth Gopher to win the Hobey, following Neal Broten (1981), Robb Stauber (1988), Brian Bonin (1996) and Leopold (2002).

With 12 new players and no numbers or names on their helmets yet, perhaps the biggest challenge for Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko at the team's first skate together Tuesday, Sept. 10, was getting to know who is who. Brian Deutsch / University of Minnesota Athletics.

Feeling at home in the Bay State

Despite promises to the contrary, the Gophers practiced at Ridder Arena — not some suburban Boston rink — to prepare for their Frozen Four showdown with MSU-Mankato. After winning the Worcester Regional, roughly an hour west of Boston, their head coach joked that the Gophers might be checking VRBO for a long-term rental somewhere near TD Garden.


“We’ve talked about the fact that we really like Massachusetts, and we’ve got no choice now but to stay in this state now for the next three weeks,” Bob Motzko said after the win over Western at the DCU Center in Worcester. “That was one of the things we talked about was coming to Massachusetts and playing good. One weekend’s accomplished, and we’ll be back.”

Motzko admitted that his last time in Boston behind the Gophers bench came in early 2005, in what was his final season as an assistant coach under Don Lucia. Ranked atop the national polls at the time, the Gophers visited Boston University on Jan. 2-3, winning 2-1 in the final game played at BU’s historic Walter Brown Arena, then falling 2-1 the next night in the inaugural game at Agganis Arena, which has been the Terriers’ home rink since.

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“It’s been a long time since I’ve been there with a team. I was with Minnesota when we opened up the new BU rink, going back a few years,” Motzko said. “It’s an unbelievable city and I’ve been there many times throughout the years. It’s going to have a little western feel to it. I hope the people of Massachusetts like people from Minnesota.”

Weekend details

Thursday’s Gophers NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game versus Minnesota State Mankato at TD Garden in Boston is a 7:30 p.m. CT start and will be televised nationally on ESPNU with John Buccigross, Barry Melrose and Colby Cohen calling the action. On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco behind the microphones. The first semifinal between Michigan and Denver is a 4 p.m. CT start and will be aired on ESPN2.

The Rink Live will also host live game blogs for the Frozen Four games.

Postgame interviews with Motzko and Gophers players can be seen live, roughly 10 minutes after the final horn at The Rink Live’s Facebook page.

The Gophers’ in-state rivalry with the Mavericks began Jan. 2-3, 1998, when Minnesota swept a home series versus the program then known as Mankato State. The U of M leads the all-time series with MSU 37-17-6, although the Mavericks won their last meeting 4-0 on March 28, 2021, in the Loveland Regional championship game.


Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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