New commit could be UND's first hockey player from Texas
Johnson is expected to come either in the fall of 2021 or 2022
GRAND FORKS — Brent Johnson was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and grew up in Dallas — far, far away from college hockey.
But he received an introduction at a young age.
His youth hockey coach in Dallas took his team on a trip to Grand Forks to play a couple of games in Ralph Engelstad Arena. They also toured the venue and watched a University of North Dakota hockey game.
That coach was Barrett Wilson.
Wilson's father, Rick, captained UND in 1971-72 and won a national title as an assistant coach in 1980 before embarking on a 30-year NHL coaching career. Barrett's brother, Landon, starred at UND for two years before going onto a 10-year NHL career. And Barrett volunteered with the program for two years.
"They've won countless national championships, developed hundreds of NHL players, hundreds of pro hockey players ... they're considered the 33rd NHL team," Johnson said. "I wanted to be a part of it and experience that."
On his next trip back to Ralph Engelstad Arena, it will be to play for UND.
Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound defenseman gave a verbal commitment this week to play college hockey for the Fighting Hawks. Johnson is expected to come either in the fall of 2021 or 2022. When he does, he will be UND's first-ever player from Texas.
Johnson, who is in his first year with the Sioux Falls Stampede, will give UND a much-needed right-handed shot on defense. Four of the team's current five commits on defense are left-handers.
"His strengths are his ability to break pucks out, not only by moving pucks well, but also with his skating and agility," said Sioux Falls assistant coach Brett Skinner, who starred as a college defenseman for two national championship teams at Denver. "His poise and deception at the offensive blue line, and his ability to find open ice to get shots off, is really high end. He’s a fun kid to coach because he not only wants to get better but also has a lot of skill and ability to work with."
UND has become renowned for having offensively gifted players on its defensive core.
Its defensive unit has finished in the top five nationally in scoring in eight of the last 10 years. That trend will likely continue when this year is finished. Three of the six all-National Collegiate Hockey Conference defensemen this season were UND players — Matt Kiersted (first team), Jacob Bernard-Docker (second team) and Jake Sanderson (rookie team).
Johnson should follow that trend of skilled defensemen.
In his first year in the USHL, Johnson has 11 goals and 24 points in 36 games. He ranks third in the league in goals by defensemen and sixth in points.
"He is a modern defenseman," Skinner said. "He can defend well when needed and competes, but he moves pucks and can create offense in different ways — jumping in the play, creating something from nothing at the blue line and finding soft areas for shots."
Johnson, who turns 18 later this month, initially committed to Arizona State soon after his 15th birthday.
"I de-committed a couple weeks ago and opened (recruitment) back up to see what my options were," Johnson said.
Johnson said he talked to a few schools, but when UND coach Brad Berry called, he was set on coming to Grand Forks.
"My game has grown over the last six months or so," Johnson said. "I feel like I have a really good chance of maybe getting drafted this summer. I want to give myself the best chance to play in the NHL or pro hockey somewhere. I feel like North Dakota gives me the best opportunity to achieve my goals and dreams."
Johnson said his game has grown a lot this season and he hopes for that to continue.
"I think at the beginning of the season, I was still trying to find myself as a player — stick on the roster, get in the lineup every night," he said. "As I started playing and getting points a little bit, I realized I'm pretty good when I move my feet and do things I'm capable of. I think I'm still climbing and I'm excited to see where I'm at in the end."
While Johnson is set to become UND's first Texan, he's not the first that UND has attempted to recruit from the state.
In 2012, UND tried to lure Arlington's Seth Jones, now an NHL star with Columbus. Jones said, at the time, if he goes to college, it will be to UND, but he ultimately chose playing in the Western Hockey League. UND actually received a verbal commitment from Max Gerlach of Flower Mound in 2015, but Gerlach backed out of his commitment to play in the WHL.