Pros-pect (pros-pekt) n. 1. a chance of success or advancement, a job with prospects.
Syracuse Crunch defenseman Aaron Johnson and goaltender Pascal Leclaire entered the AHL All-Star break as not only two of the Columbus organization’s top prospects, but two of the top prospects in all of hockey.
What does the term “prospect” mean to them? First-round draft pick Leclaire modestly sees it just as someone who “has the chance to become a good NHL player,” while Johnson confidently views the label as someone on his way to making the show, but at present time “is growing in the organization.”
Regardless, both of these young prospects have had to work hard and rely on determination to get them where they are today.
Aaron Johnson first learned to skate at the age of three and two years later started playing hockey in his home town of Port Hawksbury, N.S. Getting started in hockey was the norm in Aaron’s home town. “Everyone did it” — including both of his older brothers.
At the age of 16, Johnson entered the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) in Canada, drafted by Rimouski (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) — where he won the 2000 Memorial Cup with the Oceanic. The following year, the Columbus Blue Jackets selected Johnson with their fourth pick, 85th overall, in the 2001 Entry Draft. After three years, he was traded to the Quebec Remparts for his final year, and Aaron went on to win the QMJHL championship with the Remparts, the same year he signed this first professional contract with Columbus (2002-03).
Similarly, Pascal Leclaire started playing hockey around the age of four. Born in Montreal and raised in Repentigny, Que., Pascal would not go to public skating events or play on a team due to his shy nature. As a result, his father built a rink in their backyard. After overcoming his shyness, Pascal began playing with a public team and started as a defenseman. His cousin was the major influence in his becoming a goalie.
“When he would come over, he would let me use all his gear and then he gave it to me,” Leclaire said.
The permanent switch to becoming a goalie came at the age of twelve. Pascal entered the QMJHL, spending his first three years with the Halifax Mooseheads and his last year with the Montreal Rocket. Columbus drafted Leclaire with the eighth overall pick in the 2001 Entry Draft. Prior to turning pro, one of Pascal’s shining moments came when he won a silver medal and was named Top Goaltender at the 2002 World Junior Championships as a member of Team Canada, posting a 4-1-0 record with a 1.80 goals against average and a .937 save percentage.
Today, both players are strong prospects in the organization, but have worked hard not to let it change who they are and how they play. All smiles all the time, Aaron Johnson is determined each time to “just go out and play and enjoy myself.”
“Now I have a Blue Jackets symbol in my head,” he quipped. For Aaron, knowing that he is a prospect is more a matter of motivation than a matter of pressure.
It is no different for Pascal. He plays each game just as he would any other, with a lot of heart and determination. The attention that comes with being a first round draft pick is a difficult hurdle to overcome. He has learned to handle the attention now, but there are still moments when he is that shy, modest guy. That side of Pascal comes through when he recalls how the first training camp was a bit intimidating.
“I grew up watching these guys, so it takes a couple days to get used to it,” he said.
Both players see the Columbus organization as a family that they are happy to be a part of. As Aaron put it, “they are people to grow with and see on a consistent basis.”
Playing in the NHL for Aaron Johnson is a dream come true. After 15 years of playing and dreaming, he finally made it. He admits, though, that adjustment was necessary.
“For some reason you change your style of game,” he admitted. The thought of playing at the level of the NHL causes the change in style. He has since learned that you can’t be intimidated; no matter which league you play in, you have to play your game. After getting through the first game, Johnson has more comfort and confidence playing at the big league level. “It’s good to have that taste of it and now it keeps me motivated.”
For Leclaire the NHL seems to have the same effect. “It’s always more fun to skate on the same ice as guys who’ve been playing for years … like Mario Lemieux and people like him.”
For both men the future is clear and simple. They continue to work to shed the label of prospect and take on the new label of NHL regular.
Aaron Johnson’s advice to those coming up behind him is to work hard. Growing up Aaron would “picture people doing exactly what I’m doing and more.” He therefore knew that he had to work just as hard as the “other” people ∑ and more. His advice for those who want to make it is to keep pushing.
Pascal Leclaire wants to ensure that hockey does not lose its purity. “Hockey is a game and needs to stay a game,” he says. “We do it because we like it. Have fun doing what you want and work hard for it.”
Both Aaron Johnson and Pascal Leclaire are hard working and motivated individuals with an amazing love of the game. Their ability to play the game with the intensity and skill that they both possess, prospects or not, makes them vital members of the Crunch family.