Johnson, who has played himself into the Calder Trophy mix this season with points in 13 of his last 16 outings, had offers from other clubs. But the other clubs didn't have Martin St. Louis, the patron saint of small hockey players.
Because the Lightning gave the 5-foot-8, 180-pound St. Louis a chance in the fall of 2000, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Johnson figured they would provide the best chance for him to succeed as a pro.
The 23-year-old Johnson has made the most of his opportunity. After Steven Stamkos suffered a broken right tibia on Nov. 11, Johnson was placed on a line with his idol. St. Louis has kept producing and Johnson has flourished.
"Obviously, playing with Marty has helped a lot," Johnson says. "One of the main reasons I signed with Tampa is the fact that Marty was here and he's done so much. I felt I would be given an opportunity. That's the biggest thing -- getting an opportunity or someone believing in you for just a second so you have that confidence that you can prove other people wrong.
"Thankfully for me, Tampa is an organization that doesn't care what you look like."
Johnson's story is similar to St. Louis's. Both were overlooked because of their size, and it didn't matter how many times they shone. They still had doubters.
Johnson was raised in Liberty Lake, near Spokane, Wash. His mom, Debbie, taught kids in the area how to skate. His father, Ken, coached hockey and would later coach his son in the years leading up to his junior days.
Johnson began skating at 18 months. When he was four, his parents convinced local organizers to allow him to play in a league where the minimum age was six.
"My parents are kind of influential in the hockey world back home," he says. "It's a smaller town. My mom taught basically all the kids in my area how to skate.
"I started skating when I was really young, so it was just one of those things that was bound to happen."
Johnson's parents nurtured his passion for hockey. For a couple of summers, they made the seven-hour trip to Vancouver every weekend so he could play against other talented kids.
"My mom and dad gave me every opportunity possible," Johnson says.
"That was a big sacrifice for my parents to do that every weekend, financially and emotionally. But without that, I don't think I would be where I am today."
Despite his skating and his offensive ability, the local Spokane Chiefs didn't draft Johnson until the 11th round. But he made an impact right away, helping the Chiefs win the 2007-08 Memorial Cup and earning the WHL's playoff MVP award.
He was invited to the Phoenix Coyotes' rookie camp in 2008 and to the Minnesota Wild's camps in 2009 and 2010. He also played a key role in the United States' gold-medal run at the 2010 world junior championship in Saskatoon. Yet there was no contract offer until Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray came calling in March 2011.
"I really didn't think about it, to be honest," Johnson says when asked what kept him going despite being undrafted in the NHL. "It's one of those things I've had to deal with my whole life. The big thing for me is that I've always had a lot of good people around me who kept pushing me, like family which has always been there for me. They've always had confidence in me and faith in me.
"I just love the game. I've always had fun. I never really focused too much on signing an NHL contract. I just wanted to play the game and hopefully my dream would come true."
In his first pro season, Johnson won his third major championship in four years. This time it was the AHL's Calder Cup with the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals under current Lightning head coach Jon Cooper.
"I think Coop and I have a good relationship," Johnson says. "I went through a lot as a rookie in the AHL. I wasn't playing that well at the beginning of the season and he's the guy that really helped me out and really had the confidence in me to play better and kind of turned the page there. He's really helped me out. We've been together three years and we've been through a lot together.
"The biggest thing was on the defensive side. In junior, I thought I played a good defensive role. But from junior to the AHL to the NHL is a huge step. Defence is the biggest difference. You have to relearn. It took me longer than I would have liked, but he was patient with me. He's been a great teacher in that aspect.
"It's awesome that he's up here now. He has that confidence in me. He knows what I can do. It makes it easier that I know the systems."
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