Jack Johnson has represented the United States 10 times in international tournaments, ranging from the world junior championship to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He’s a swift skating defenseman who can generate offense, with a game seemingly suited to larger international ice.
But the Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman was left off the Team USA roster for the 2014 Sochi Games, announced after the Winter Classic. Which, given those credentials, was a bit surprising.
So what happened? Through exemplary reporting by Scott Burnside of ESPN.com, one of two journalists who were imbedded with USA Hockey during the selection process, we know why.
According to Burnside, Johnson was a lock when the process began before the season. But two months into the season, U.S. Olympic team GM David Poile wondered if the team “may have to go a different direction,” adding that "he never seems to be living up to his potential or to his play. I'm getting this consistently across the board” and that he wasn’t “tracking correctly.”
Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke and Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi both defended his candidacy at the time.
Later, Burnside captures this on Johnson from the braintrust:
“There's something missing with Jack this year," Poile says.
"His gap is terrible right now. It's like he's got no confidence," Burke says.
"If he knew where he was on this board right now, it would kill him," Dean Lombardi adds.
Poile asks if they are being too hard on Jack Johnson, but no one rises to Johnson's rescue.
"He's having a bad year. He needs to get his s--- together," Dale Tallon says.
The USA Hockey leadership continued to debate Johnson’s place on the team, along with potential spots for Keith Yandle and Erik Johnson. This included a moment in which Poile said he had a nightmare about Johnson:
"Let's start from the bottom up here," Poile says. And then he explains how he'd had a dream that Jack Johnson wasn't on the team, a huge mistake.
"I don't want to force a square peg into a round hole here," Poile says in discussing the oft-discussed Columbus defenseman. In fact, he says the coaches indicated they were relieved at the previous management discussions about Jack Johnson and how there was growing consensus his level of play wasn't up to Olympic standards.
With a little more than a month before the announcement, Poile was still battling for Johnson on the roster:
There remains a strong pull for many in the group to include Jack Johnson in spite of his off season.
"Twelve days. Jack will not let us down for 12 days," Poile says. "It's a gut feeling for Jack. It's not how he's playing. It's what he's done in the past. It's history versus the present," he says.
With that, Johnson actually reentered the picture for the U.S., his stock rising above that of Fowler. But when the final cuts were made, according to Burnside, the ultimate decision was Fowler ahead of Johnson:
After so much to- and fro-ing in recent weeks, the desire of the coaches to have Cam Fowler on the team trumped the heavy emotional connection to Jack Johnson, and so Fowler earned not just the eighth spot on the blue line but moved up the depth chart to a potential third pairing, with Brooks Orpik dropping a rung.
The final internal voting had Fowler ahead of Johnson 6-3. There was, finally, no pushback from the committee on this decision.
With that, Jack Johnson was off the team. At least for now.
Injuries can happen, and Poile said on Wednesday that depending on the player that’s injured, it could open the door for a defensive defenseman (like Erik Johnson) or a more offensive one (like Jack Johnson).
But for now, one of the most experienced players internationally for the U.S. will be watching the Americans attempt to win gold in Sochi, rather than helped them do so.
(Read the full Burnside article. It's fabulous.)