The Kelowna Rockets may have just beaten the Portland Winterhawks for the WHL’s Western Conference title, but while the two hockey teams were engaged in battle, there was a separate, smaller scale match-up also taking place in the background.
During the series, Rockets defenceman Lucas Johansen was fighting a war of words with his brother, Columbus Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen, a Portland Winterhawks alumni. Due to conflicting season schedules, Ryan is rarely able to attend Lucas’ games in person, so the Johansen’s generally communicate through text or phone call. While generally supportive in nature through those mediums, the siblings made sure to mix in their share of barbs while Ryan’s former team squared off against Lucas’s current club.
“I’m always giving him a hard time,” said the elder Johansen, who turns 23 in July. “I told him I’m cheering for the Hawks. I’ve got texts from him saying, ‘I can’t wait to beat the Hawks tonight’ and stuff like that to rub it in on me. Deep down though, when I’m watching the games, one hundred percent I want to see him and his team be successful.”
Lucas was nearly convinced his brother was truly on his side all along.
“I think he was cheering for me, but I don’t really know,” admitted Lucas, 17. “He bugs me sometimes. He’ll send me the odd text saying ‘Go Hawks!’ as a joke, but for the most part, he’s rooting for the Rockets, I think.”
Beyond the give-and-take, Lucas has found his brother to be a well of experience and knowledge that he’s constantly able to draw from, especially during the Rockets’ series with Portland.
“He watched the games,” said Lucas. “When he played for Portland, they won the Western Conference as well, so he’s been through it. He can definitely give me pointers on what I can do better, and he definitely has. It’s good to have a guy like that in your family.”
Despite being five years apart in age, and thousands of miles away from each other at all times during the hockey season, Lucas and Ryan managed to become closer than ever this past year.
“Last year was really the first year my brother and I got really close,” Ryan recalled. “We basically did everything together. He started training with me every day. He’d stay over a lot of the time at my place. We really became close friends.
“It’s awesome that I can guide him. Whenever he needs an answer to a question, I can help him out, or show him how to do things differently.”
While mining all he can from big brother, Lucas also wants to put in his own work, and blaze his own trail in hockey. Ryan is in full support of that approach.
“Lucas is one of those kids that really drives himself,” said Ryan. “He’s got that inner drive where he wakes up every day and asks, ‘What can I do to get better at hockey?’ Whether it’s going to the gym, playing road hockey — anything that would help him be a better hockey player, he wants to do.”
“The thing I tell everyone about him is that his work ethic is non-stop,” Ryan continued in his praise for Lucas. “He’s doing everything he can right now to get in my position and play in the NHL. As an older brother and seeing him go through the process, I couldn’t be more proud of him and the way he works and carries himself.
“I love the way he plays the game. I think he can be a heck of a player. The way he’s been working, and the way he cares about the game and prepares himself, he’s definitely on the right track. He’s one of those kids that really wants to do it himself, and prove to people that he can be a great hockey player. Me playing in the NHL for a few years and having gone through the WHL, he’s got a lot of motivation to be successful. Seeing him do his own thing, I’m really proud of the way he’s developed, the way this year’s gone for him, and the way their team’s been playing. It’s been an absolute blast watching him and hearing about him grow.”
Beyond game-play matters, Ryan’s also been able to provide counsel on Lucas’ choice to play major junior rather than pursue an NCAA scholarship — a decision Ryan had to make for himself in 2009.
“Leaving a full ride scholarship is probably is the toughest hockey decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Ryan said. “To have a path set up, and to throw it all behind and just take a shot at hockey — the way I felt about my game, to me it was always the right decision. It was the thing I always wanted to do, and I just went with my gut feeling. I had the confidence that I could play with those players, and be successful out there. It didn’t happen overnight — it took a lot of hard work and a lot of teaching, but like my brother, we’re both motivated to be the best players we can be. I put my mind to it and found ways to get better. I had a lot of great players and people there to guide me through it, and so does Lucas now. He’s got a great organization in Kelowna, and he’s surrounded with great players and great coaches. That’s how kids become successful. The sky’s the limit for him, just like it is for me. It’s such a fun process to go through, and one of the things I always tell him is to enjoy it.”
With the likes of Rick Nash, Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik all departing Columbus while he was on the Blue Jackets’ roster, Ryan found himself in a position where the team needed him to step up and fill holes.
In response, Johansen set career highs in assists and points last season, was voted into the NHL All-Star Game, and outscored all three of the aforementioned names.
With the Rockets now battling for the WHL championship, Kelowna will demand the same of their players if they are to capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup — Lucas included.
“They looked at me as a guy who needed to elevate his game and take that next step to be an elite player,” said Ryan. “The opportunity was mine. It was right in front of me, and I had to go grab it. I’ve still got so much room to improve. I feel I can grow a lot still as a player, and that’s what they’ve been telling me leaving Columbus to come back home, they still want to see another level, and I do as well. I prepare to do the things that make me successful on the ice, and that’s what I tell Lucas — that those experiences that I go through are what made me better.
“Everything’s not going to be the same for the both of us, but at least I can share those experiences with him, which hopefully will make us both better.”