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When Charlie Johnson took the ice on a few special nights last year, he carried a certain edge over his opponents. It’s undetectable by tests, but you wouldn’t find it on the list of banned substances anyway. Still, you’d be hard pressed to find another college hockey player with this secret weapon. It’s almost intangible, practically indescribable—and located in the condiment aisle of your local supermarket.
When Charlie Johnson took the ice on those nights where he was an offensive force to be feared, he didn’t find his groove. He brought the jam.
Former Harvard men’s hockey coach Mark Mazzoleni coined the phrase after the Crimson’s 5-3 upset of UMass in December of last year. At the time, the team was hovering around .500 and struggling desperately to live up to preseason expectations. Frustrated and chastised by Mazzoleni, Harvard temporarily broke out of its early-season doldrums with the surprise win.
And at the heart of it was Johnson, who netted two goals in the first two periods to provide the margin of victory.
“You know, Charlie Johnson’s got to play with jam,” Mazzoleni said at the time. “When Charlie Johnson plays with jam, that’s what happens. When he doesn’t play, you don’t even know he’s on the rink. I’m just telling you how it is. It’s the truth. He can be the difference-maker for us, if he plays with jam.”
In the midst of all the gooey praise, there’s the qualifier: if. Because the truth was last year, nights like the UMass game didn’t happen every week. Those flashes of brilliance have so far been just glimpses of the electricity Johnson could bring to the game on a regular basis.
Until now, that is.
As an experienced junior and a veteran on a squad with a passel of newcomers—including a new coach—Johnson believes this is the year he will fully step into his role as a leader for the offense, as well as the team. This will be the year when he’s that difference-maker—every game, every shot.
“I expect to be counted on as one of the top producers,” Johnson says, “and I expect to be someone who’s productive every time.”
Like many members of last year’s team, Johnson had a patchy season that only kicked into gear during the playoff stretch. On one hand, there were games like the one against UMass. On the other, Johnson failed to score a point until nearly a month later.
Then he separated his shoulder against Yale in early February, causing him to miss five games. Then again, Johnson celebrated his return to play with two goals in a 4-0 victory over Dartmouth in the final weekend of regular-season play.
“Sometimes things just go your way, and sometimes if you score early, you get energy, and you can build from that,” Johnson says. “You get on a roll, and sometimes things are just clicking that night, and you and your linemates are feeling each other out well, and you’ve got your legs.”
So there’s no question that Johnson can be the deciding factor in a close game, as his several breakout games have proven.
This season, however, he knows he has to be able to make that difference on any given night.
THE NECESSARY TOOLS
Based on sheer physical talent, Johnson is in an enviable position. With excellent skating ability and good hands, he has a skill package that should translate to a genuine offensive threat on the ice.
And by all accounts, this will be the year that will happen.
“Charlie’s a guy who comes to play,” senior forward Brendan Bernakevitch says. “He’s really creative, he’s really fast, he’s smart out there on the ice...He’s got the hunger to score goals and get to the net.”
Those skills were honed playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the Calgary Royals the year before he came to Harvard, and they’ve been obvious ever since Johnson’s freshman year, when, despite a deep Crimson roster, he still registered 20 points on the season and split the team’s Rookie of the Year award with defensemen Peter Hafner.
Physically, he’s one of the most talented players on the team—and the most focused.
“He comes to work every day, punches in, punches out, doesn’t ask any questions,” freshman Jon Pelle says. “He plays a different style than some of the other guys on the team, but he’s one of the most gifted players I’ve seen in a long time.”
And after two years of tantalizing glimpses doled out in multi-point game after multi-point game, Johnson feels that he is just a short step away from showing off that sort of skill in every game, on every shot.
Pelle is willing to vouch for him.
“I think he’s going to have a breakthrough year,” he says.
THE STRONG, SILENT TYPE
With the graduation of several impact players on the front line, Johnson can’t waste any time this year in hitting his stride.
“ I definitely expect my role to be a lot bigger than last year’s, since we lost a lot of big forwards like [Tyler Kolarik ’04 and Dennis Packard ’04],” Johnson says. “I started to play the way I wanted to play last year, but I definitely didn’t produce like I had expected.”
Aside from his responsibility as a key manufacturer of the Crimson’s offense, Johnson will have to step up off the ice as well.
“I’ve actually taken it upon myself to take more of a leadership role,” Johnson says. “The last couple years I’ve just kind of followed, listened to last year’s senior class and the year before that, because there were a lot of them. With so few juniors and seniors this year, I’ve definitely taken it upon myself to help the freshmen along, to tell them what I learned, how I got through it.”
But although Johnson looked to veterans like Kolarik for the past two years—and was even compared to him when he first arrived at Harvard—their off-ice attitudes were definitely different.
“When he spoke up in the locker room, everyone paid attention to him,” Johnson says of Kolarik. “He’s a bit more intense than I am—I’m a little more laid-back.”
Instead, Johnson will let his demeanor speak for itself, most of the time.
“I probably just lead more by example, and hopefully when I do speak up, because I’m more laid-back, people will listen,” he says. “[I hope to be] more of the Dom Moore [’03] type—not so vocal, but people pay attention to you when you have something to say.”
With the 2004 season just underway, it’s too early to tell if Johnson has fully adjusted to his new role as an all-around leader. Will he set an example for the underclassmen as a reliable and potent offensive sparkplug? Will he live up to the talent belied by his physical skill? And most importantly, will he bring the jam?
Speaking of which, what is the jam, exactly?
Johnson has to laugh.
“I think the jam is kind of just energy and high intensity,” he says.
Whatever you call it, Johnson has shown that he has the ability to break it out from time to time. This season, the question remains whether he can move from sticky to sticking it to Harvard opponents—every game, every shot.
—Staff writer Lisa J. Kennelly can be reached at email@example.com.
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