In hockey and aviation, former Gophers defenseman Steve Johnson is off to a flying start
Post-hockey plans are up in the air for former Minnesota Gophers defenseman Steve Johnson, which is a solid career goal. While playing pro hockey, two years removed from the U of M, Johnson is also immersed in flight school, earning his pilot's license and aiming to follow his father into commercial aviation someday.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — On the ice, playing defense professionally at one of the top levels of hockey in North America, Steve Johnson is used to making split-second decisions in high-pressure situations.
So it is no surprise that a mechanical problem he encountered while flying solo a few thousand feet above the rolling farmland of central Minnesota last summer barely phased the former Minnesota Gopher.
“My alternator, which provides electricity to the plane, failed. I’d just flown over St. Cloud and had to make a decision on whether I thought I could make it back to Eden Prairie or make an emergency landing right now,” recalled Johnson, who was alone in a six-seat, single-engine plane at the time. “I didn’t want to head into the (Twin) Cities without any communication and some of the instruments. I wasn’t scared because I could fly the plane and I was still in control.
"But I decided to play it safe. I landed in St. Cloud, they fixed the plane there and one of the instructors flew up to pick me up later that day.”
For Johnson, who skated last season with the Cleveland Monsters, the top minor league team for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, there are some definite parallels between what he does on the ice, with skates and a stick, and what he is learning to do in the air, at the controls of an airplane.
“Every game you play, or every time you go up in a plane, you have to be totally focused. If you’re not, that’s when things go wrong,” said Johnson, 25, who skated four seasons for the Gophers under Don Lucia before starting his pro hockey career two years ago. “Either you could get scored on, or something could go wrong in the airplane. You have to be focused every time you go play in a game and every time you go fly.”
Flying is a family business for the Johnsons of Minnetonka. Steve’s father, Scott, studied aviation at the University of North Dakota in the 1980s, and has been a commercial pilot for more than 30 years. Scott flew first for Northwest Airlines, and now for Delta after the companies merged a decade ago.
While playing for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League after his time at Minnetonka High School and considering colleges, Steve looked at both North Dakota and Minnesota State University-Mankato, which have aviation programs, but stayed closer to home.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to be a Gopher,” said Steve, who earned three Big Ten titles and degrees in agricultural finance and business management.
With their standby privileges on Delta, the Johnson family was able to attend most of Steve’s road games his final three years with the Gophers. After his first full season of pro hockey, split between ECHL teams in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, and the Hershey (Pa.) Bears of the American Hockey League, Johnson decided it was time to give flight school a try.
His father, who has seen three decades of changes in commercial aviation, offered realistic advice.
“The industry has been feast or famine, and the hills and valleys are crazy. So the only thing I said to him is you’ve got to really love this thing or don’t bother,” Scott said. “I wasn’t talking him into it. In fact, I was maybe leaning toward talking him out of it, but mostly I said if you’re lukewarm, don’t do it.”
Steve was not lukewarm, and found a real passion for flying from the first seconds the landing gear left the runway. He became a licensed pilot at the end of the summer of 2019, and celebrated by taking three hockey friends up for an aerial tour of Lake Minnetonka.
“I was a lot more trusting in him than my other two buddies were,” said Jimmy Schuldt, a former St. Cloud State star defenseman who played alongside Johnson in youth and high school hockey in Minnetonka and with the Lancers for a season. “There were four of us in the plane the first time and Tommy Vanelli, in particular, was very cautious and a little bit skeptical of the whole thing.
"So I got to sit in the front and be Steve’s co-pilot for the whole trip, which was really fun.”
Trying to follow his dad
Steve has found a real joy in flying his friends and giving them a view of Minnesota from a few thousand feet up.
“That’s one of the biggest things I enjoy is taking other people up and watching them enjoy it,” Johnson said, admitting that on the way to or from a road game, more than one Monsters teammate has jokingly asked, in case of a cockpit emergency, if Steve can land the plane. “Seeing their faces and kind of experiencing it together. That’s the fun part of it.”
Hockey is on hiatus due to the pandemic, so Johnson has been taking more advanced flying lessons up to five times a week out of Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie. He's been flying with his father, learning skills like piloting in the clouds, when you have only the instruments to guide you.
Typically, Scott Johnson flies a Boeing 737 for Delta, ferrying passengers to and from the Caribbean in the winter and between Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport and the West Coast in the summer. But he hasn’t flown in more than a month, with commercial aviation greatly reduced due to the coronavirus.
Someday the crisis will be over. And Steve Johnson is realistic enough to know that so will time as a hockey player, sometime in the future. While working hard on the ice, hopeful of a place on a NHL blue line someday, he is also hard at work on the rest of his life, aiming to follow his father’s path to a career with an incomparable view.
“That’s what I’m going for. Nothing is set in stone, but I could definitely see it,” Johnson said. “I’m increasing my ratings and getting more licenses, so I think that following in my dad’s footsteps is kind of in the works after my hockey career.”