Commentary

Quick trip 'unforgettable' for Johnson

Updated: February 14, 2010, 11:18 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

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PART ONE: HOW COULD WE NOT TRY?

It started with a package that came a day early.

Word of which players made the United States Olympic hockey team wasn't supposed to come until Jan. 1, and officially it wasn't supposed to come until it was announced on live television.

But there it was, on Jack Johnson's doorstep on Dec. 31, a thick FedEx envelope, left for just about anyone to find.

With the realization of an Olympic dream inside.

He was in. He was an Olympian.

[+] EnlargeCongratulations sign for Jack Johnson
Ramona ShelburneA small sign greeted Johnson as he headed toward the plane.

"Oh man, that was like the best feeling," the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said early this morning. "But it was so tough because I couldn't tell anyone for like a day-and-a-half because it wasn't supposed to arrive until the 1st.

"I remember being at practice, looking around at some of the guys I knew were also in the running and trying to see if they knew anything yet, if they were in on it, too. It turns out they got a package too, but no one wanted to say anything."

While he kept the news to himself and his family, there was no way Johnson could stay away from looking through every bit of paperwork in the FedEx envelope.

Olympics venues, procedures, schedules. Everything.

Then he noticed something: The opening ceremonies were on Friday night, Feb. 12, an off day for the Kings.

"I looked at the Olympic schedule, then I looked at the Kings schedule, and I was like, 'Wow, I might just be able to make the opening ceremonies,'" Johnson said. "As soon as I thought about it, I knew I had to do it."

Making it happen wasn't easy: chartering a plane to fly out at 6 a.m. this morning after playing a game Thursday night, arranging for transport across the U.S.-Canada border, coordinating his plans with the Kings and USA Hockey, and then somehow figuring out how to get back before Saturday's morning skate, as the Kings prepare for their game against Colorado on Saturday night.

But then he thought of actually walking for Team USA, as it marched into the opening ceremonies, and there was no way he was backing off the plan.

"I mean, it wasn't easy to do this," Johnson said minutes before touching down at a tiny airstrip in Bellingham, Wash. "But we're doing what we have to do to make this happen.

"So many things had to go right for this to happen, how could we not try and do this?"

PART TWO: 'WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF YOUR VISIT TO CANADA?'

The Canadian border control agent was all business and probably not a hockey fan.

Gruff and direct would be the nice way of describing her demeanor as we crossed the border into Canada a little before 10 a.m., seven hours after we'd all woken up back in Los Angeles.

"What is the purpose of your visit to Canada?" she asked plainly.

[+] EnlargeJack Johnson's chartered jet
Ramona ShelburneFirst sign of light on what will be a long, exciting day.

Funny question, right? National pride? A thirst for adventure? The pioneer spirit? How do you answer such a thing if you're Jack Johnson right now?

"I'm transporting an athlete and his family to the Olympics," replied our driver, Tanya Rouse.

At this point you'd probably expect a smile or some "congratulations"' or "good luck," right?

Maybe a question or two about what sport this athlete plays?

Not so much.

Instead we got, "An athlete? Where's the athlete?" and a skeptical stare.

To which our driver politely said, "Yes, ma'am, a hockey player," as Johnson raised his hand from the backseat.

It all seemed so routine and ordinary for a journey that was anything but.

This wasn't just some trip to Canada. This wasn't even some quick trip to the Olympics.

This was the first American-born NHL player to walk in the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics.

A million things had to line up for this idea to even get off the ground. The Olympics being held in North America, the Kings having an off-day, Johnson having the will and the endurance to try and make this happen.

Vancouver Mountain
Ramona Shelburne for ESPN.comJohnson likes the view from 30,000 feet.

Somehow he just sat quietly in the backseat as we made our way through the crossing and back out on to the highway.

For Johnson, this isn't about making a splash or making a name for himself. It's not about impressing strangers or being treated like a celebrity. It's just about being here, on the road to Vancouver, knowing that in another hour he'll get a sweatshirt and hat with "U.S.A." on it so he can walk into BC Place Stadium as an Olympian.

"There was obviously that thought of, 'Wow, we're going to have to take some extreme measures to get here,'" he said. "But it's all going to be worth it in the end. This really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"I mean, if I'm fortunate to make the team again in four years, the games are in Russia. I can't just fly to Russia and back for the opening ceremony. Once we realized that this is the only time we could do this, that it was kind of take it or leave it, there was no second-guessing. We were going to make this happen."

PART THREE: FAMOUS NAME BUT JUST A REGULAR GUY

Johnson isn't the only NHL player who had an opportunity to pop up to British Columbia for the day and catch the opening ceremony. He's just the only player who actually decided it was worth the effort to do it.

When I first heard about his plans and decided to ride along, the whole thing seemed very POTUS-y or rock star-ish.

Chartered jets, limousines across the border, dashing in for the opening ceremony, rushing out to get home for a morning skate …

Then I Googled "Jack Johnson" and came back with the Web site for an actual rock star -- a Hawaiian folksy guy who is going on tour this June -- and I got a little confused for second.

"Believe me, you're not the first person who's done that," he somehow found the good nature to joke about 7:15 a.m. "It's either the musician Jack Johnson or the boxer Jack Johnson. People really have to look hard to find me."

And he seems fine with it.

Jack Johnson/Family
Ramona Shelburne for ESPN.comThe Johnson family: Kenny, Jack, Tina and Jack Sr.

He's a little surprised he can go over to the Yard House restaurant across the street from Staples Center with some buddies half an hour after a Kings game and not be recognized by anyone -- not even the guys wearing Kings jerseys -- but still fine with it.

Back home in Michigan, that wouldn't happen. Up here in Vancouver, that wouldn't happen.

But Johnson didn't come to L.A. wanting to stand in the bright lights all the time. Actually, he came wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, listening to country music and wanting to play video games with his 11-year-old brother, Kenny, in his spare time.

They've always been close, despite the age difference.

"It's exactly 714 miles between our home in Ann Arbor and the boarding school [Shattuck-St. Mary's] Jack went to in Minnesota," Jack Sr. says. "I know because we made that drive a lot in those days, just to keep the family together as much as we could."

When Jack Jr. started playing for the Kings two and a half years ago, there wasn't much doubt his family would come out to Los Angeles with him.

"It's hard leaving my friends back home," Kenny said. "But it'd be harder not being around Jack."

Would it have been cheaper to come to Vancouver by himself? Without a doubt. But the thought never crossed anyone's mind. If they were going to do this, they were going to share the experience.

Not exactly a page from the rock star playbook.

But there is no antidote once an Olympics bug bites you. It bites and anthems start playing in your head, chills start running down your spine before you even get to the frigid air of Vancouver, and every piece of you wants to be there and share it with the people you care about most.

PART FOUR: 'THE COOLEST THING I'VE EVER DONE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE'

It's hard to say when things really got surreal or when all of this started sinking in. When Johnson finally realized that he was actually here in Vancouver, at the Winter Olympics, about to swallow whole a moment he had dreamed of his whole life.

Was it the moment snowboarding star Shaun White came up to him and asked to take a photo?

The moment when he shook hands with Vice President Joe Biden?

Or the last few tingling seconds he and the rest of the U.S. delegation waited in the tunnel of Vancouver's BC Place Stadium, waiting to march into the opening ceremonies?

"I think that was it," Johnson said. "We were all waiting in the tunnel. Uzbekistan was behind us and Canada was behind them. Canada starts chanting and we started chanting and it just go so loud in there. It was like everyone was so excited we were going to push whatever country was in front of us out of the way and run out there.

"I don't think it has anything to do with how old you are, or how many Olympics you've been to; there's really nothing like it.

"This is, bar none, the coolest thing I've ever done in my entire life. It'll probably be the coolest thing I'll ever do in my life. I'm still kind of downloading and remembering it all."

Now comes the hard part.

Jack Johnson
Ramona Shelburne for ESPN.comJack Johnson rides back to the airport after the opening ceremony.

As I write this, we are en route to the Bellingham Airport, bound for an 11:30 p.m. charter that is set to touch back down in Los Angeles around 2:30 a.m.

Seven hours later, Johnson is due back in El Segundo for the Kings' morning skate.

But that's not what's hard about it.

The hard part is leaving Vancouver, if only for a day, after basking in a night so sweet.

PART FIVE: 'UNFORGETTABLE. UNFORGETTABLE'

The private landing strip here at Atlantic Aviation looks mostly the same now at 2:15 a.m. Saturday as it did when we arrived here more than 22 hours ago.

It is all of us who have changed.

It's hard to explain how it all washes over you, because it doesn't happen at once. Years later, something will trigger a memory, and a smile will just appear on your face.

Of the six of us who made this crazy journey, I was the only one who had been to an Olympics before. And yet, as Heraclitus said, no man ever steps in the same river twice, because it is not the same river and he is not the same man.

Each Olympics has its own spirit, its own face chiseled out over the 16 days the eternal flame glows high above the skyline.

On this night, that face is of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died in a training accident Friday morning. Images of his horrific wreck spread around the world in a wave of grief, casting an uncomfortable pall over the beginning of these Games.

Johnson, like most of his fellow Olympians, was caught off guard by the news, learning of it only when a reporter asked him about it in an interview.

"It was such a horrible story," Johnson said. "It's so sad. That kind of thing just should never happen at the Olympics. That's not what this is about. It's totally heartbreaking."

During the opening ceremonies, Kumaritashvili was remembered and honored with a moment of silence. As the world took a moment to reflect and mourn from afar, the pain inside the stadium was immediate and acute.

[+] EnlargeJack Johnson
Ramona Shelburne for ESPNLosAngeles.comThe Olympic spirit was in full effect on the streets of Vancouver on Friday night during Jack Johnson's quick trip for the opening ceremony.

A baby's cry pierced the sad quiet, hovering and hanging over the crisp Canadian night.

"All I could think when that happened," Jack Johnson Sr. said, "was about the cycle of life. A 21-year-old dies and a baby cries and all these other Olympians are living their dream. I'll never forget that."

More than 2,600 Olympians came to Vancouver from all corners of the globe, all with a dream and an excited flutter in their hearts. They do not know each other by name, but they are all chiseled from the same stone. It's a unique bond only they can understand or explain.

In that crowd stood Jack Johnson, a 23-year-old hockey player, who had quite literally moved heaven and earth to be there.

A set of circumstances had allowed him to be present in that moment, all the stars having aligned in a path to light this journey north.

An Olympian will created a way.

"I knew going in this would be one of the best things I'd ever done in my life," he said. "I came out thinking it was even better than that."

On the late-night flight home, we all caught a few minutes of sleep. Not deep sleep, but just enough to feel like a transition had taken place.

Just before landing, Jack Johnson Sr. awoke and looked quietly out the window while everyone else slept.

What thoughts passed through his head?

Pride? Joy? Sadness about the death earlier that day of a man just two years younger than his son? All of that.

After the opening ceremonies he'd been speechless, tears having flowed freely throughout the night.

"Unforgettable," he said. "Unforgettable."

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles traveled with Johnson and his family to Vancouver and back Friday for the Olympic opening ceremony, posting updates throughout the day and night.