Former UND center Luke Johnson wins KHL's Gagarin Cup

May 2—GRAND FORKS — Last summer, Luke Johnson had a plan.

He expected to stay in North America playing professional hockey for a couple more seasons. His goal was to crack the NHL one more time.

But it was pretty quiet, and in July, a team in Magnitogorsk, Russia, reached out and made an offer.

"It was something I couldn't pass up," Johnson said. "Good money. I was talking to a few guys who have played there before and they had nothing but good things to say about the organization. I figured, why not do it now?"

The Grand Forks native and former UND center signed a one-year deal with Magnitogorsk, which plays in the top Russian league, the KHL.

"I figured I'd go over there and see how it is," Johnson said. "I ended up really enjoying my time there."

Johnson, an eighth-year pro, had a memorable finish to the season.

Magnitogorsk made a run to win the Gagarin Cup as KHL champions. They swept Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 4-0 in the final.

Johnson had four goals and seven points in 23 playoff games, while leading the KHL in faceoff percentage.

"It was awesome," Johnson said. "The playoffs, obviously, whatever league you're in is a different level. It's the best hockey to play in. Just the way the city and fans supported us and got behind us, I almost compare it to soccer in Europe with how passionate they are. It was really cool to be a part of. Comparing it to playoff runs in the American League, it was way different and way more enjoyable. Going all the way and winning the whole thing made it a lot better."

Johnson said there was a big celebration in Magnitogorsk, which has a population of about 410,000.

"I think back to when we won it in 2016 with UND," he said. "It was similar to that feeling. It was certainly memorable. It's something I'll remember forever."

For Johnson, it was yet another championship.

He previously won North Dakota boys state hockey titles with both Grand Forks Red River and Grand Forks Central. He won a college national championship at UND, too.

"It will be pretty cool to look back one day and think about how fortunate I was to be on all the teams I've played on," Johnson said. "I've been fortunate to play with some really good players and really good teams."

There were some challenges playing in Magnitogorsk.

"It was definitely a culture shock, for sure," Johnson said. "It's so different. A lot of things are different over there. The town is kind of an older steel town. There wasn't much to do in town, but you're so busy with travel and playing hockey that when you have time away from the rink, you're resting and laying low."

The travel was extra challenging because of how many time zones are in Russia.

"There are 10 different time zones," Johnson said. "So, you may have a two-and-a-half hour flight home after a game, but get home at 6 a.m. Then, you have to play the next day. That can be a grind as far as that goes, but you get used to it."

Johnson was the only North American on his team. Few spoke English.

"We had one import from Sweden," Johnson said. "He speaks English. There was a lot of hanging out with him. There were a handful of guys who spoke English on the team. Our goalie coach spoke English. He was translating the whole year. A lot of times you don't know what's being said. You have to figure it out on your own."

Johnson has not signed anywhere for next year, but said he's hoping to go back to Magnitogorsk.

"I think they're going to take some time here," Johnson said. "But hopefully in the next few weeks, I'll know."