Saturday night, after more than 22 months of uncertainty, Stephen Johns made his long-hoped-for return to professional hockey. Hoped for, in this case, is a deliberate choice. This was not a broken bone or torn ligament. At no point during Johns’ stop-start hiatus has return been a certainty. Far from it, actually.
Dallas Stars fans are undoubtedly excited about Stephen Johns the hockey player, but they must measure that excitement with understanding for Stephen Johns the human being.
Stephen Johns the hockey player, apparently, is not going to make that easy. In his return, Johns led the Texas Stars to a raucous 5-3 comeback victory against the Toronto Marlies. In that game, again his first action since 2018, Johns scored a goal, added three assists, registered seven shots, and was a plus three. He did so in 20:23 including 2:55 on the penalty kill and 1:51 on the power play (stats courtesy of Sean Shapiro, who wrote about his first game back in action and is a worthy read complete with video, and who calculated time on ice as that isn’t a publicly available statistic in the AHL. Yeah, we’re shocked too.) Anecdotally? He looked like a hockey player and did not seem overly tentative or passive.
He was Stephen Johns, and that’s a big deal. It’s also dangerous.
The scale of this injury is simply staggering. Johns was initially concussed on October 24, 2017. He would return about a week later (November 2), suffer another head injury later that month (November 28), and then shut things down for good on March 28, 2018. From that point on his playing profile reads like a tragedy. Each practice, each step forward, would bring headaches and as many steps backwards. Seriously, just keep scrolling.
As fans, it is easy to think about Stephen Johns the hockey player. How might he look lined up alongside Miro Heiskanen or John Klingberg? What would another mobile, physical defender do to Dallas’ already-formidable backline? He is better now. Right? That’s what Saturday meant. Wasn’t it?
By the way, these are not bad thoughts. Dallas Stars fans have every right to get excited, and to be hopeful. It is very possible that Stephen Johns will return in a significant way to help a promising team, and my goodness won’t that be something?
It is also possible he will not return. Stephen Johns the human being has an entire life to consider, and head injuries are notorious in their impact. The decision to continue playing hockey facing Johns runs far deeper than what he’ll do the first time a puck goes into the corner, or comes face-to-face with a streaking Nathan McKinnon. This is a 27-year old man with most of his life yet to come. That matters, and loathe as fans might be to admit it, matters far more than hockey.
What fans should realize is that Stephen Johns has already “succeeded” in the hockey sense. He came back. He won on Saturday. Game over. Maybe he finds a home in Dallas’ top four, maybe he never makes it all the way back, maybe he lands somewhere in between.
All of the above are worthy of admiration.
So cheer for Stephen Johns, that’s good. Just be thoughtful in the expectations you levy on a player returning from this kind of head injury. If he never fulfills the sugar plum dreams you have dancing through your head, that’s actually okay.
Because there is more, far more, to life than 20 minutes a night on an NHL backline.