Trevor Stienburg is in his 23rd season as head coach of the Saint Mary's Huskies men's hockey team.
The veteran bench boss gave Stephen Johnson, a fourth-year forward from Moncton, the ultimate compliment.
"He's second to none of the people that I've coached," Stienburg said.
Fans of the Moncton Wildcats already know all about Johnson, a former captain of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League club who was a dependable two-way player during a four-year major junior career.
Johnson has now developed into an all-star in the university ranks.
The 24-year-old is suiting up for the U Sports men's hockey all-star team that plays Canadian junior national team prospects in a two-game exhibition series on Wednesday and Thursday in Oakville, Ont.
This marks the fifth consecutive year the U Sports all-stars are facing the Canadian junior team prospects, who are vying for roster spots on the squad that will represent Canada at the world junior hockey championship, scheduled Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.
"It's a pretty big honour," said Johnson, a business student at the Halifax school. "The world juniors is always a big event and it was always on at Christmas time growing up. To be able to help them prepare for the tournament is pretty exciting."
The exhibition games are vital for Canadian junior team hopefuls. They're important to the university players, too.
U Sports leads the series 5-3-1.
"This is something that we don't take lightly. It's a chance for us to continue to get better, keep improving, and these kids are really good - some of them are drafted into the NHL - and will definitely be good competition for us," Johnson said.
"We want to make sure these guys are ready for the tournament, and we want to do our best to push them as much as we can. We want to show them that there are a lot of good players in university."
Johnson is having his best season yet for Saint Mary's in the Atlantic University Sport conference.
He's third on the Huskies with 20 points, including 14 goals, in 18 games at the holiday break. His 14 goals - double his tally in all of last year - lead the conference.
Johnson, who recorded 20 points in 29 games last season, has stepped up into a top-six forward role this season after Saint Mary's lost four of its top five scorers from 2018-19.
"I've taken advantage of the opportunity to get more ice time and be put in different places to succeed, and I've tried to run with it," he said.
"I just try to bring energy. The way I play, I work hard and try to be the best two-way forward I can be and help the team win, no matter what."
Stienburg, who regards Johnson as the top penalty killer in the AUS and one of the Huskies' top leaders, said the Moncton native has come a long way since not always earning a regular shift as a rookie.
But what is more impressive to the coach is the way Johnson handles himself off the ice.
"He shows up every day to do whatever he can do that is best for the team. He's probably one of the most loved guys I've seen as a teammate," said Stienburg, a former NHLer.
"I'm not sure you can raise a better kid. If my son ends up to follow after Johnny, I would be happy."
The U Sports all-star team includes two other former Wildcats players - defenceman Nick Welsh, Johnson's teammate at Saint Mary's, and forward Mark Simpson of the University of New Brunswick Reds.
Welsh, a sophomore, is tied for second in the AUS with 27 points in 17 games. Simpson, a fourth-year veteran who played for the U Sports all-star team a year ago, has 14 points in 15 games.
Johnson's uncle, UNB head coach Gardiner MacDougall, is coaching the U Sports all-star squad in Oakville.
"He's a pretty enthusiastic guy," said Johnson, "so it will be a good experience and a lot of fun."
Source: Times & Transcript
Wed Dec 11 2019
Byline: Sean Hatchard