Red Deer Rebels forward Reese Johnson signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks that runs through the 2021-22 season, worth an average annual value of $925,000. (File Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Rebels forward Reese Johnson signs with Blackhawks

Red Deer Rebels captain Reese Johnson grinned at the suggestion he might owe Brandon Hagel a favour or two.

Johnson was the centre of attention at Rebels practice Wednesday after the Chicago Blackhawks announced they had signed him to a three-year contract that runs through the 2021-22 season, worth an average annual value of $925,000.

“Obviously, I’m excited, I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet, to be honest. It’s been a crazy last week here,” Johnson said.

Of course, it was Hagel who might have helped things along when he scouted and signed by the Blackhawks earlier this fall.

“He hasn’t said much to me about that yet, but I’m sure it will be coming here pretty quick,” Johnson added with a laugh.

The 20-year-old Rebels captain said talks picked up during the Saskatchewan road trip last week after a game in Regina when a Blackhawks scout reached out to him. He then had a conversation with Chicago GM Stan Bowman and the deal got done relatively quickly.

For a player, who almost two years ago, wasn’t sure what his playing future held, it is a dream come true. This season, the Saskatoon, Sask. native is having a career year with 22 goals and 23 assists in 62 games.

Injuries nearly derailed his career in 2014 and 2015, when he played 48 games in two seasons. It’s been a long road back to this point and Johnson said the formula to arriving at a pro deal might be simpler than it seems.

“Try and be the hardest working guy on the ice every shift and do the little things right. Take pride in the little things. Faceoffs, finishing checks and things like that,” Johnson said.

“That’s what they said they like about my game. Which is good to hear. Just want to be the best at the little things, I think that can go a long way.”

His GM and head coach in Red Deer, Brent Sutter, who spent seven-plus years in the Blackhawks organization couldn’t be more proud of his captain. Sutter said the one thing Johnson has brought to the table from the day he arrived, is his work ethic.

“Johnny has always been hard working, always been very committed. It’s just the development curve with him. When you miss two years of hockey like he did, it speaks volumes,” Sutter said.

“Not just an outstanding young man, a kid that’s very driven and a good leader in our room. That’s why he’s our captain.”

Hard work alone doesn’t always earn a player an NHL contract and to that end, there is an area of the ice – particularly the faceoff circle where Johnson has excelled this season.

In the most recent WHL faceoff stats, Johnson is second among qualifying players with 894 wins on 1,378 attempts in the circle. He 64.9 percent wining percentage is the best mark in the league.

“Right-handed centre iceman. Centre ice men are hard to find and especially right-handed guys. He’s really good in faceoffs and he’s really competitive and really good in his own zone. It’s hard to find in today’s game,” Sutter said.

Johnson even did a little prognosticating Wednesday, teasing the idea that along with Hagel, the two long-time Rebels could one day form an NHL connection for the Blackhawks.

“They were here watching Hags a while back. They are pleased to have him in the system too, he’s an awesome player,” Johnson added.

“It’s pretty crazy that we’re with them now. We’ll be very good one day at the pro level.”

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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