Friday, September 3, 2010

Beets goes to Boston

Former Suns star takes sticks job with Bruins

Express Staff Writer

Jimmy “Beets” Johnson, shown here getting ready for the 1996-97 Sun Valley Suns season, was a slender, speedy and gentlemanly player who wore #82 in his later Suns years. 1982 was the year he led Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica in scoring with 54 points. Photo by Willy Cook

"Friday the 13th" has taken on new meaning for former Sun Valley Suns scoring star Jimmy "Beets" Johnson. Before August, he didn't think much about it at all. But now, it has become his favorite day.

That's the day, on Aug. 13, when Boston Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney phoned Johnson and said, "Hey, you know that assistant equipment manager job you wanted? Well, it's yours!"

Minnesota native Johnson, 49, was working in maintenance at Elkhorn Golf Course as a greenskeeper at the time of the call from Sweeney, 44, a native Canadian and Harvard defenseman who skated for the Boston Bruins for 15 seasons.

Beets was delighted to hear he'd be back in the National Hockey League after nine years as a New York Rangers equipment manager from 2000-09.

"I was so pumped," said Johnson. "Second chances don't often happen but it's funny how life works. I know I had a lot of people pulling for me and I'm very grateful. And I'm thankful that things worked out and that I've been given this chance once again."

Johnson, from Virginia, Minn. in the hardscrabble Iron Range, skated 14 seasons for the Suns from 1984-1998 and remains the 10th leading all-time scorer for the local men's senior hockey team with 93 goals and 263 points. He led the Suns in scoring in 1988.

In college, 5-8, 150-pound forward Johnson played for College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. and had a notable career from 1979-1983—a two-time team captain, team scoring king in 1982 and Most Valuable Player in 1982-83.

Johnson followed a couple of hometown friends, John and Jim Finnegan, and St. Scholastica defenseman Tim Jeneson to Sun Valley. Beets conducted his life according to a favorite quote from the late Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson, who always said, "It's a great day for hockey."

He joined the Rangers as an assistant equipment manager for the 2000-01 season and stayed at Madison Square Garden for nearly a decade, in charge of hockey sticks, skate sharpening and you name it.

It was a grind. Johnson hankered to spend more time with his son Parker Weekes of Ketchum. So he walked away from the Rangers job a year ago and returned to Idaho. He spent last winter following Parker, 15, and his hockey games with Idaho Junior Steelheads.

Johnson said, "About midseason, I started itching to get back to it. I watched all the Rangers games and knew I still had the passion for it. After a year, and it was a great year with Parker, I felt refreshed, recharged and energized."

Hockey players are lifers and Johnson is one of them. But few make a living at the highest level of the sport, whether it's playing the game or stationed near the player bench where Johnson spends games in packed arenas tending to the needs of the players.

Getting the Boston job wasn't a slam dunk by any means. New England is a tough nut to crack, and there are legions of New England-bred high school, college and pro hockey players trying to stay in the game in some capacity.

Johnson heard about the Boston job after former equipment manager Mark Dumas departed from the Bruins and 21-year assistant Keith Robinson took over the head equipment job at Boston. Robinson and Johnson had become friends over the last 10 years.

Still, Johnson had to cash in a stack of chips, getting references from a long list of former Rangers and NHL players like Mark Messier. And he had a back-up plan—working the sticks for Bemidji State University (Minn.) women's hockey coach Steve Sertich in case the Bruins gig didn't fly.

But it did, so Johnson might have to postpone joining Ketchum's Glenn Hunter and former Suns at Tampa, Fla. next April 11-12 for a 50-and-over national tournament next year. Beets had been looking forward to the Florida reunion, since he turns 50 next March.

"Hey, maybe I can make a game. We could be playing Tampa Bay in the playoffs. I think we're going to be pretty good," he said about the 2010-11 Bruins team he's waiting to meet when camp opens Sept. 17.

Johnson packed up his belongings and left Idaho Aug. 19 for a six-day, cross-country drive that ended Aug. 24 at the Bruins practice facility in Wilmington, Mass. north of Boston. Rookie camp is next week, and the first pre-season game is Sept. 22 at Montreal.

When he was still playing—his final Suns goal was shorthanded against the Michigan Jets Feb. 14, 1998—Johnson spent a winter skating in Europe. He returned to the continent two years ago on an early-season trip to Bern and Prague with the Rangers.

This fall, the Bruins will travel to Belfast for an Oct. 2 pre-season game at Odyssey Arena and move on to Prague for a scrimmage against Liberc at Tipsport Arena Oct. 5. They'll officially open the NHL season playing the Phoenix Coyotes at Prague Oct. 9-10.

"Keith and I will travel with the team. I know my way around over there. It's going to be a good time," Beets said.

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