Senior’s run ends with back injury

Chris Johnson’s Temple career was one repeatedly marked with injuries and bad luck.

Johnson’s long and winding road with Temple ice hockey has come to a premature end due to a bum back with multiple slipped disks, no cartilage in and around his vertebrae, as well as the early stages of arthritis.

With that diagnosis, the senior had no choice but to walk away from the game he loves.

“I’ve accepted it,” Johnson said. “It really sucks considering it’s my senior year and my last semester here, and I’ve been with most of these guys for three or four years and I feel like I’m letting them down, but at the same time I’d really like to be able to walk later in life. I feel like we have a good chance to do [well] this year, but I have to look after myself here.”

What started as mild discomfort in his back after games became more of an issue as the season unfolded, Johnson said.

“I’ve had back problems before, but nothing like this year,” Johnson said. “It got to the point where after games I couldn’t walk the following day. It used to go away after a couple hours, but not this year.”

After missing the final weekend of the fall semester due to the persisting pain, Johnson decided to get checked out at a family doctor during winter break. The doctor then referred him to an orthopedic surgeon, who told him he couldn’t play ice hockey under his current condition.

“[Johnson] is a tough kid, but he’s got the worst luck ever,” coach Jerry Roberts said. “I feel bad because I feel like most of his time here was spent injured. In the windows where he was healthy, he was a really dominant player. It seemed like he was either injured or just coming off of one, and we just had a hard time keeping him healthy.”

After struggling with various injuries, including a bum shoulder, throughout his first few seasons at Temple, Johnson enjoyed a career year last season, netting 10 goals and assisting on six as Temple’s fourth-leading scorer with 16 points in 26 games.

That success was harder to come by for the senior in this injury-laden season, with six points – one goal, five assists – in 17 games. Johnson will leave Temple with 36 points (19G, 17A) in 86 career games.

Though the Owls have had time to adapt to life without Johnson, his absence will still be noticed both on the ice and in the locker room, players and coaches said.

“[Johnson] was a threat on offense and such a fast skater,” Roberts said. “He was very good at bringing people together [in the locker room] also. He was always quick to introduce himself and he was one of those guys who really added to that team atmosphere. He always wanted to be around players and he was a solid team player. He was a guy who is just a great leader to have both on the ice and in the locker room.”

“Chris is a pretty dynamic player for us,” senior forward Sean Nealis said. “He’s one of our best penalty killers and power play guys. He’s a big game changer on the ice. He can do everything and he’s a guy you want on your team. Losing Chris going into a stretch where we need to win games and need people to step up, it hurts. But everyone on the team knows that someone is going to have to step up and fill it.”

Nealis and Johnson discussed the latter dilemma during winter break while Nealis was going through a similar situation after suffering a concussion in a Dec. 8 loss to Penn State.

“I’ve gotten really close with Chris over the years and we were going back and forth on this for a while,” Nealis said. “I knew he was hurt and he told me he would probably be done maybe two weeks before break. It’s a rough spot for him to be in. He’s only 22 [years old] and you have to play it smart with stuff like this.”

“We were both out with injuries throughout the year and we both have the same shoulder problems,” Nealis added. “I have the concussions thing and we were in the same boat because I originally thought I would be out for the semester and I ended up getting cleared. But it was a pretty scary thought. I told him he had to do it and he knew going in that he couldn’t mess with this stuff.”

In addition to Johnson’s departure, the Owls lost freshman forward Jayson Marbach for the rest of the season due to academic ineligibility.

Though his playing days are over, Johnson will be looking to keep his ties close with his beloved game throughout life.

“I’m just a sports management major trying to do something with sports and hopefully hockey,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping to get in with Comcast spectator and Global Spectrum. I’m interning right now with [Philadelphia Flyers owner] Ed Snider’s youth hockey foundation and I’m hoping that’ll help.”

“I don’t want to be done with hockey but I don’t want to coach, at least not right now,” Johnson added. “That’s why I’m hoping to do something with sports so I can stay with hockey.”

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu or on Twitter @daParent93.

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