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Johansen exhibit AA for Canada

Hey, hockey parents, just because you're emptying the bank account and traveling all over God's Green Earth so Little Johnny can play at the highest level doesn't mean he's headed for stardom. And just because Lesser Johnny plays on a lower tier doesn't mean he's destined for the beer leagues.

Ryan Johansen didn't play Triple-A hockey while growing up just outside Vancouver. His hometown of Port Moody, B.C., didn't have a team at that level. He played -- gasp! -- Double A until he was 14 years old. He was tall, gangly and, by his own account, had poor feet and was never the best player on his own team.

"I was always the kid that nobody ever heard about," Johansen said Tuesday. "The biggest fault when I was that age was my skating. I was just a lanky tall kid who was really slow-footed. It took me until I was midway through my 16-year-old year where I started developing some speed."

Hey, kids, if you're good enough, they'll find you. It's not about where you play. It's about how hard you work and how well you play that ultimately determine the outcomes. Look no further than Johansen, who is Exhibit A for Double A.

Johansen was barely on Team Canada's radar before everything came together in 18 months. He improved his skating, grew into his body and had 25 goals and 69 points in 71 games last season with Portland in the Western Hockey League. His stock soared, and he was selected fourth overall by Columbus in June.

And now, after six games of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship, he's a household name across Canada.

"You can definitely see why he was picked fourth overall," said Sabres prospect Zack Kassian, who was selected 13th overall in 2009. "He's very smart, very skilled and he's so good defensively. He's a great player to play [with]. Good for him. He's not playing like a Double A player now."

Johansen, 18, looks like the kid stocking shelves at the grocery store, but his fresh face and aw-shucks demeanor haven't fooled anyone who has watched him play. His relentless style has come to personify Canada's march into the gold-medal game tonight against Russia in HSBC Arena.

He's one of 15 first-round picks on Canada's roster, one of five selected in the top 10, who have refused to carry themselves like superstars. He's not Team Canada's best player. Brayden Schenn has been more productive with seven goals and 16 points and is the likely choice to be named top forward for the tournament. Johansen has three goals and nine points for a balanced group of players who checked their egos at the door.

Now? Look out for the Maple Leaf.

Team Canada is stocked with skill and big, punishing hitters who have unleashed their aggression throughout the tournament. The United States couldn't overcome Canada at its best in the semifinals Monday, when the red and white dominated the red, white and blue in the first period en route to a 4-1 victory.

Johansen has spent the tournament effectively slipping through heavy traffic and making himself available. He's been a bear around the net. He pounced on a rebound Monday to score the third goal, all but finishing the Yanks. He had a great goal in a victory over Switzerland while fighting off a check and swatting a puck from his backside.

"If you go through our whole team, you'll find guys who sacrificed ice time or situations like the power play to be on the penalty kill or that checking role," Johansen said. "It's been huge for our team. Everybody has bought into their roles, done their best and haven't complained."

In no time, you realize Johansen does all the little things that make up a good player even though he's not blessed with ridiculous speed or magical hands. He's intelligent and rarely on the wrong side of the puck. He's big enough at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds to muscle his way inside and talented enough to make it all work.

Canada is loaded with players who could be described much the same way. The Canadians have effectively combined a plumber's mentality with NHL skill level, which makes for a very dangerous team going into tonight's game against the Russians. You can't help but admire their selflessness, chemistry and passion for the game.

That brings us back to Johansen's greatest asset, a hunger often found in Double-A players. They spend years playing with something to prove and love beating pampered kids with the best equipment under superior coaches in bigger programs and prettier rinks who think they're going to the NHL.

If you're good enough, it doesn't matter where you play because eventually you'll wind up precisely where you belong.

"For sure," Johansen said. "There was always that extra jump in your legs because you wanted to beat that Triple-A team and show people we could be as good as them. I guess for me it shows you don't have be in a Triple-A association to be a good hockey player."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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