Dallas Stars defenseman Stephen Johns was nominated for the 2019-20 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy on Tuesday. It’s an annual award given to the player that “exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
There was no certainty that Stephen Johns would ever return to NHL action when he rejoined the Dallas Stars for practice on Nov. 30, 2019. After all, he hadn’t skated with the team in a regular practice session in months and had not competed in an NHL game since March of 2018.
But still, it was a sign of hopeful progress that a return to the Stars blue line was on the horizon.
Fast forward to June 9, 2020 and he is now the Dallas Stars’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. And what a road it’s been for Johns to get to this nomination.
The Bill Masterton Trophy was first awarded in 1968 and is given annually “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.” The award is named after the late Bill Masterton, the former Minnesota North Stars forward and the only NHL player to die from an injury sustained in a hockey game.
Every season, one player from each NHL team that boasts these qualities is nominated by their local Professional Hockey Writers’ Association chapter. The winner of the 2020 award will be announced later in the summer once the NHL decides on how it will handle its annual awards show.
But for Johns, simply getting back into the lineup for an NHL game would have been deemed a significant enough accomplishment.
It all started on March 29, 2018 when Johns took a hit up high in a game against the Minnesota Wild. He left the game and was later diagnosed with a concussion that effectively ended his season. But with the Stars only playing four more games before their own 2017-18 campaign ended, Johns wasn’t expected to miss much.
The defenseman was wrapping up his best season in Dallas and had reopened the door to a world of future potential. He posted eight goals and seven assists in 75 games and averaged 17 minutes, 33 seconds of ice time during the season. But most importantly, he had grown into the top-four, two-way role that the Stars had envisioned he would when they acquired the 2010 second-round pick from the Chicago Blackhawks in July 2015.
“I think I just slowed everything down and learned how to be an NHL defenseman. I learned when to pick and choose my spots and when to jump up in the play and when not to force plays. Just kind of knowing the situations of the games. I think this year I just became a solid defenseman. That was my goal at the beginning of the year.” – Stephen Johns in April 2018
Later on in the summer of 2018, Johns signed a three-year extension with the Stars and seemed to be their go-to physical, shutdown option on defense for the foreseeable future.
That hope was put on pause in September 2018 when it was announced that Johns was dealing with post-traumatic headaches. Those headaches eventually sidelined him for the entirety of the 2018-19 season and put his future of playing in the NHL into question.
Johns showed progress throughout the summer of 2019 and even skated with Stars prospects in their 2019 development camp session. But on the first day of 2019 training camp in Frisco, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill announced that Johns was out indefinitely and that no more questions would be answered regarding the defenseman’s status.
“I just want the focus to be on the team,” Nill said. “That’s important for me. We’ll work with Stephen behind the scenes, but I want to make sure the focus stays on the team because that’s what we’re here for.”
It was out of respect for Johns and the desire to allow him to focus on his health and well-being for the long-term future rather than his timetable for getting back on the ice. Johns would eventually commend Nill and the rest of the Stars staff and players for how they handled the situation and for allowing him to focus on himself as a person rather than as a hockey player.
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Throughout the first two months of the season, Johns continued to skate on his own while focusing on his recovery. On Nov. 30, he joined the team in Frisco after getting the green light to return to a team practice setting.
On Jan. 11, Johns began a two-game conditioning stint with the Texas Stars in the AHL. He didn’t miss a beat in his first hockey game since 2018, scoring a goal and adding three assists for the first four-point night of his hockey career. He was the best player on the ice by a long shot and looked as though he was more than ready to return to the NHL.
“It’s hard not to get emotional asking that question because I think you miss every single thing,” Johns said prior to the game against Minnesota. “I think the hardest part was sitting up in the stands and just watching tough losses and not being able to be in the locker room with the guys after, after big wins. Every single aspect you could imagine about the game of hockey.”
That debut turned into 17 games for Johns up until the NHL paused its 2019-20 season due to concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
His game against the New York Rangers on Feb. 3 at Madison Square Garden is arguably the most significant one in his first season back, with Johns scoring his first goal since Feb. 16, 2018 and adding an assist in a 5-3 win for the Stars.
HE DID THE THING 🥳💪
Stephen Johns blasts home his first goal of the season and, after nearly 22 months away from action, @stjohns28 is BACK in the goal column! The Stars regain the lead! 🚨#GoStars | @DallasStars pic.twitter.com/po4W2vGNmP
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) February 4, 2020
“I waited a long time and thought a lot about possibly never doing that again,” Johns said about scoring the goal. “To help this team at a crucial moment in the game, I just couldn’t be happier.”
He did it all in front of his parents, who were in attendance and sitting in the lower bowl.
“It makes it pretty special,” Johns said following the game. “My parents were here tonight. Throughout this whole process, it wasn’t just me going through hell. I’m pretty excited to go see them and give them both a big hug. As parents, they want to help and for them to be here and see that, I probably know that my dad was for sure crying. As parents, they want to help, but they couldn’t. I know they were hurting the whole time I was, too.”
This is one of those tweets that doesn’t need an in-depth caption. Just listen.
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) February 4, 2020
Johns finished the season with two goals and three assists, along with 50 hits and 20 blocked shots in 17 minutes, 40 seconds of average ice time (the highest average ice time of his career).
The amount of time that passed between the uncertainty of Johns ever playing again and the confidence that he was once again a top-four option for the Dallas Stars for years to come is rather shocking when you think about it. After 22 months of no competitive hockey action, Johns returned to the ice and made an immediate impact on the Dallas blue line.
The 28-year-old looked calm and confident in his first season back and provided the same qualities as he had before his injury. He was physical in the defensive zone, laying out multiple hits a game and using his size and reach to suppress and break up opposing attacks. In the offensive zone, he showed off the strong, accurate shot that led him to an eight-goal season in 2017-18. His size and skating ability are a unique combination and help make him a strong top-four option in a deep Dallas defensive group.
BLAST OFF 🚀
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) February 16, 2020
The perseverance and determination shown by Johns in an unexpected and unpredictable situation aren’t easily taught or learned. But with the support of family, friends, and the entire Dallas Stars organization, they helped reignite his future in the NHL. In addition, they also make him a strong candidate for the Masterton Trophy.
No Dallas Stars player has ever won the award, though Al MacAdam of the 1979-80 Minnesota North Stars is the lone winner in franchise history.
We’ll have to wait and see how the PHWA votes on the award, but one thing is for certain: Stephen Johns’s journey and battle against post-traumatic headaches and post-concussion syndrome is not a common or relatable one and his perseverance is second-to-none.