This interview appeared in the Dec. 2022 issue of Mile High Sports, which can be found here.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If there’s a lone hockey player in Colorado who – we as a staff believe – is representative of hockey players across the state, it’s Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson. The 15-year NHL veteran, now in his 13th season with the Avalanche, is a giant of a man. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he’s dished out plenty of punishment along his path to becoming a Stanley Cup Champion. But his famous, toothless grin is symbolic of every little boy who plays the game for the sheer love of it. To celebrate the greatest year that hockey has ever had in Colorado, there was nobody with whom we’d rather chat than big No. 6, Erik Johnson.

Doug Ottewill: You had the summer to enjoy being a Stanley Cup champion. What was the best moment for you publicly after you won the Cup?

Erik Johnson: Probably the parade. I don’t think anyone knew the scale of how big it was going to be. It was more than anyone anticipated, just the waves of people. A lot of that had to do with a big moment for the state and the city post-COVID, where everyone could really enjoy it. I think that had a lot to do with it. People could go out and celebrate. That was a big, big part of it; people getting out and enjoying the parade.

Ottewill: How about privately?

EJ: Back in the locker room right after we won in Tampa. And then we had the team party at my house like two days after with all the guys and significant others – just partying together and eating and drinking, having a good time. And, the morning after we won the Cup – we probably all went to bed at, you know, six in the morning and we had to be up at 8:30 –and I’d just fallen asleep for about an hour. Gabe Landeskog knocked on my door with the Cup and said, “Take it for a couple hours.” So, that was pretty cool.

Ottewill: It became kind of a famous picture on social media.

EJ: Yes, the famous picture in the bed, right after we won the Cup, the morning after. So, that was pretty sweet.

Ottewill: For you, was there a moment that you knew you guys were winning it all?

EJ: No, I don’t think there was just one moment. We believed that we could win all year. We thought we had the team to do it. A lot of things had to fall into place; there’s some luck involved with injuries and timing and other things. But there wasn’t a moment. I just felt like in the start of the year that was really our only goal. We knew we could do it if we played how we thought we could, and we did.

Ottewill: Is there one thing you learned about what it takes to win the Cup once you won it -something that the average player, the average fan, whoever, could never understand until you actually do it?

EJ: That’s like a really good question. I think everyone that plays in the NHL wants to win the Cup, but I don’t think everyone knows how hard it is and what it takes. For me it made me have a newfound respect for a lot of guys and teams that have done in the past. You know, Chicago did it three times, LA did it twice. I mean, it’s so difficult to do. I didn’t know how hard it was – and you don’t know how hard it is until you go through it. It’s a mental and physical grind, and there’s a lot of ups and downs throughout the season and in the playoffs. Until you experience it, there’s really no substitute for replicating what that takes until you go through it.

Jun 30, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) during the Stanley Cup Championship Celebration. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Ottewill: In your career, you’ve obviously had some great highs – you were the number one overall draft pick, now winning the Stanley Cup. Those are two things that very, very few players ever experience. But you’ve also had a lot of lows – some tough injuries, tough seasons, tough losses. Was there ever a “low” when you couldn’t foresee hoisting the Cup?

EJ: I try and look at the big picture. I try and think back to if I was a 9-year-old kid, and you told me I was going to play the NHL for over 15 years, play in the Olympics, play in the NHL All Star Game, and then win a Cup? I would sign up for that all day long. I feel grateful and really blessed with the career I’ve had. I think there are still some more chapters to be written. Sure, there are lows, but in the big picture, in the grand scheme of things, you’re playing a game you love to play, getting paid a lot of money, and the lows don’t compare to lows that a lot of people experience on a day-to-day basis. I just tried to never get too high or too low; I just try and stay even keel. I just believed in myself, and you have to have people that believe in you that are in your corner, as well. Fortunately for me, I had a team and staff around me that helped. It’s such a team effort. You’re not winning the Cup with just Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar. You need a group full of guys and everybody’s in. Some guys are bigger pieces of the puzzle. Some guys are smaller pieces of the puzzle. But at the end of the day, it’s a team effort and I felt like I was just grateful to be a part of the team.

Ottewill: Do you define or perceive your own career differently now? There are a lot of athletes, great athletes across all sports, who never win a title. It’s not even uncommon. By every measurable imaginable, your career with or without a Cup has been wildly successful. But, now you add the Cup on top of all that. Is it different now?

EJ: Everyone likes a winner, right? That’s the great thing about team sports – you could do things as a team you could never do as an individual. That’s why team sports are so cool. I would’ve felt a void, just as 20 other guys would’ve felt the void, if we didn’t win. I’ve played with great players throughout my career – Hall of Fame players – who have never won the Cup. And, you know, I’m sure there’s a little bit of a pit in their stomach. It’s not that they weren’t good enough; it’s just a lot of things have to fall in a place to win. But your life changes when you win a title. For sure. You know, just your day-to-day life throughout your journey, and even this summer and this year, everything kind of changes.

Ottewill: You grew up in a, in a great hockey place in Minnesota. What do you see in Colorado? You’ve been here more than 12 years now and this year was somewhat of a culmination – the Avs winning, DU winning, East High School and all the junior teams winning. What do you think about this place now? How similar is it to where you grew up at this point?

EJ: I don’t know if I can give a good answer to that because I’m not in minor hockey, youth scene, so I don’t know how much it’s exploded. But just seeing some of the guys you know that went to DU or CC, or grew up in Colorado, playing NHL now, I think it’s only to become more and more. You’re seeing a different generation – with us winning the last handful of years and being a really good team – I think you’re going see that pay dividends for hockey players down the line. I’m sure this ‘21, ‘22 team and other teams are inspiring kids to play and grow the game even more. I think we’re probably seeing, right now, the effects of the ‘96 and ‘01 teams. I think you’re going see a whole new wave of kids based on our team. (Colorado) is definitely a place where I don’t think you have to move away in order to get or to get good competition. I think you can stay in-state and that’s something a lot of players and parents are finding out.

Ottewill: Catch us up on the horse racing business. Where are you at with that? You’ve won a Stanley Cup; now is the Derby in your sights?

EJ: Uh, no. I just kind of have fun with it in the summer, when I can go to the races and enjoy myself. During the season, I just don’t have the time or the focus to really enjoy it as much. But, I have a couple mares that I breed in Kentucky, and then I have a couple race horses that I’m partners on with a group of buddies. It’s kind of a small-scale thing that I enjoy. I’m sure there’s a bunch of soccer fans watching the World Cup right now, and I put on the horse racing channel.

Apr 26, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) celebrates his goal with center Alex Newhook (18) and teammates in the second period against the St. Louis Blues at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports