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Johnston siblings pushing each other to success

by Joe Spurrier | AHL On The Beat

Hockey is widely considered the biggest winter sport in the world, and while Canada has been known as the face of the pastime, it has grown exponentially in the United States.

California in particular has been one of the top American states where the sport has cultivated and grown the past 10 years. The Anaheim Ducks recently helped establish that truth when they hosted the 2019-20 Rivalry Series between the U.S. and Canada women’s teams in the final game of the five-game series at Honda Center on Feb. 8.

The two teams played in front 13,320 fans, which set a record for the most-attended women’s national hockey team game ever played on U.S. soil. Team USA walked away with a thrilling 4-3 overtime win, but a familiar face in San Diego Gulls defenseman Ryan Johnston was in the crowd cheering on his older sister. Johnston was able to make the 90-mile trek north to watch Rebecca, a veteran forward on Team Canada, compete center stage in the showpiece event.

Playing in the memorable 2019-20 Rivalry Series is just a small part of Rebecca Johnston’s incredible hockey journey. As a member of Team Canada since 2007, she has competed at eight IIHF Women’s World Championships as well as three Olympic Winter Games, helping Canada win gold in 2010 (Vancouver) and 2014 (Sochi), as well as a silver medal in PyeongChang (2018), where she was among the team’s leading scorers.

“I’ve always been the brother to her; I’ve never been ‘Ryan,’ I’ve always been ‘Rebecca’s brother,’” said the Gulls defenseman while watching his sister at Honda Center. “I’ve always been proud of her. She’s been a really good role model in every facet of life. I can’t say what she’s done for her name, for our family and the game of hockey.”

But it wasn’t always the main stage with Team Canada where Rebecca thrived. Growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, the family consisted of five siblings: Ryan, Rebecca, and their two brothers and a sister. All have had hockey as a big influence in their lives, but the two had always stood out among the rest.

“We were super-competitive growing up and he’s taught me a lot,” said Rebecca. “We would always go on the ice together, me and my brothers. We were all really competitive with each other, we would push each other and they were definitely a big part of my growth.”

That growth helped Rebecca vault to stardom with Team Canada over the years, and Ryan from Colgate University to the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens. While the two have been able to track each other’s careers, their respective teams don’t necessarily cross paths frequently. That all was able to change as a gap in the Gulls schedule and Canada being just up the highway gave Ryan a chance he wasn’t going to pass up to see his big sister play at Honda Center.

“I was really excited to see her. I haven’t seen her since Christmas,” he said the morning of the contest as he finished practice in Poway with the Gulls. “I don’t get to see her too often because she’s always playing hockey at the exact same time as me. It’s typically only summers that I can see her, so I’m just excited to see her.”

The 27-year-old Johnston was acquired by the Gulls from the Toronto Marlies on Oct. 31 and, upon news of the trade, he immediately called his sister who had previously played under current Gulls head coach Kevin Dineen. During the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Dineen coached Canada’s women’s team to a gold medal; Rebecca co-led Canada with five points in five tournament games (2g, 3a).

“She was really excited,” said Ryan. “She really liked him (Dineen) and really enjoyed her time playing for him. She mentioned it beforehand and we had our FaceTime calls and we just talked about what he’s like and such. It was all good things beforehand too.

“It’s crazy, everyone just knows everyone somehow,” added Ryan. “It’s just that small connection, that small world that you just seem to always have a connection in some sort of way.”

While hockey is played around the world, it is built within a figuratively small and close-knit community. It all comes full circle that Ryan is now suiting up for the Gulls under Dineen, and he and his sister can say they now have that in common as well as a busy hockey schedule.