(Hockey Canada photo)
A veteran of the SJHL coaching wars, he spent one season (1994-95) as head coach of the WHL’s Regina Pats. A lot of his time that winter was spent cleaning up an organization that was in the ditch. Despite getting things back on track off the ice, he wasn’t invited back after the team went 26-43-3 on it.
A school teacher, Johnston since has coached various minor hockey teams in Regina and presently runs the midget AAA Regina Pat Canadians.
Last week, Johnston was wearing a rather wide grin. And, while he perhaps wasn’t saying “I told you so,” you can bet he was at least thinking it.
Because Johnston has been one of JC Lipon’s biggest supporters for years now.
Lipon, a right winger in his fourth season with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, came under Johnston’s tutelage in Regina’s minor hockey ranks. And now Lipon finds himself in Europe as a member of Canada’s national junior team.
Johnston isn’t surprised.
“I can still remember calling JC and telling him that he had made the bantam team,” Johnston says. “I told JC that I had never coached anyone as small as he was.
“JC’s reply was, ‘I will do anything to play . . . anything to help the team.’ ”
At the time, Lipon was, according to Johnston, “under five feet and less than 100 pounds.”
A couple of years later, Johnston was coaching the Pat Canadians and Lipon was in his camp. History repeated itself.
“He was among the bottom 15-year-olds,” Johnston admits, “but he just wanted to play. We carried 22 players and JC was the last forward we picked.
“I can still remember parents coming up to me and telling me I picked the wrong guy. One parent told me that she understood if her son did not make the team, but that (bleeping) Lipon better not make it either!”
Johnston adds that a lot of hockey people talk about “character.” As he points out, they throw that word around like it’s a penny.
But, he adds, Lipon really does have character. “JC just wants to play,” Johnston says. “Really, this guy will do what it takes to win.”
Now in his fifth season as the Pat Canadians’ head coach, Johnston has brought back five former players to speak to his team and the parents – Lipon, Graham Black of the Swift Current Broncos, Harrison Ruopp (Prince Albert Raiders), James Howden (Clarkson University and Kale Derkson (junior A Notre Dame Hounds).
When Lipon spoke, it was about “work ethic and never give up,” Johnston says.
Today, Lipon is testament to both.
Here’s a guy who is in his fourth WHL season despite having scored only six goals combined in his first two seasons. At least he was consistent, with three goals each season.
From the beginning, though, all he wanted to do was play. After his first season, Lipon figured out that if he scrapped a bit he might get more playing time. So in 2010-11, he got involved in 15 fights, up from four his freshman season.
All the while, though, Lipon was working to become a better player. A national-calibre wakeboarder, he obviously is athletic. That helped him to improve his skating. His work ethic is beyond reproach. But, at the same time, he is extremely coachable.
Early last season, Kamloops head coach Guy Charron put Lipon on the right side of a line with Tim Bozon and Colin Smith.
The chemistry was immediate and Lipon responded with 65 points, including 19 goals. Then he started this season like a house afire. When he left for Team Canada’s selection camp, Lipon had 57 points, including 22 goals, in 34 games.
Seen as the longest of longshots, he earned a roster spot, perhaps grabbing it in the first period of the prospects’ second of two exhibition games when he twice absorbed hits in order to make plays and also set up a goal.
Canada flew to Finland on Saturday. It will play exhibition games there against Finland on Thursday and Sweden on Saturday. Then it’s off to Ufa, Russia, where it opens the World Junior Championship on Dec. 26 against Germany.
Lipon is likely to play on an energy line with Philip Danault of the QMJHL’s Victoriaville Tigres and Anthony Camara of the OHL’s Barrie Colts. Danault was a first-round selection by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s 2011 draft. Camara went to the Boston Bruins in the third round of that draft.
Lipon? He has never been drafted. He agreed to a tryout deal with the Colorado Avalanche last summer but the lockout wiped that out.
Of the 23 players on Canada’s roster, 21 have gone through the NHL draft and 20 of those were selected. Only Lipon wasn’t taken.
When Lipon played in the Subway Super Series game in Victoria in November, he admitted to having been star struck when he found himself surrounded by “all those first-round draft picks.”
Well, there are 10 first-round selections on Team Canada’s roster, along with six seconds and three thirds. But Lipon now knows that he fits in with these guys, that he can play at this level.
So don’t be surprised if, before this tournament is over, people have to come to know JC Lipon, the guy who “just wants to play.”
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is a firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)
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