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A rising NHL Star and his North Bay roots

'North Bay was a great place to grow up and playing hockey at West Ferris was amazing'

An up-and-coming NHL superstar got his first taste of hockey right here in North Bay skating as a three-year-old on frozen Lake Nipissing.

Wyatt Johnston, a 21-year-old forward with the Dallas Stars recently tied a record set by Wayne Gretzky by scoring a power play goal and a shorthanded goal in an NHL playoff game before age 21. He pulled off the impressive performance during the Stars 5-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche in game 4 of the series which the Stars won in six games. 

Johnston is the youngest player in the NHL's playoff top 15 scoring leaders this spring. 

Wyatt is the youngest of three and grew up playing his minor hockey in Toronto. 

However, his father Chuck Johnston, and his family have deep roots in North Bay.

His family ran Johnston Dairy in North Bay which opened in the early 1900s.

Chuck says his mother, who has since passed away, lived on Lakeshore Drive on the shores of Lake Nipissing.  

"I played a lot of hockey on that lake for many years. We went and visited my mom since she was getting older and the attraction of the lake was always there," he said.

"We would go up in the summer regularly and my wife would tolerate the four-hour drive from Toronto to North Bay. We spent time playing in the water, swimming and fishing."

However, Chuck says Wyatt's true love for Lake Nipissing came while playing hockey on it. The proud dad shared a photo, rich with 'Canadiana', showing a young Wyatt skating on a foggy winter day on the North Bay area waterway. 

"With Wyatt, we would either shovel off a rink on the lake or even build one," he recalled. 

"We have a photo of Wyatt, it was a little foggy with the sun setting on Lake Nipissing when he was playing hockey. he was only three but he was pushing a stick around." 

Chuck's first memories of Wyatt loving hockey come from North Bay too. 

"I think the first experience he had of hockey was when the World Junior Championships were on and we were in front of my mom's TV on Lakeshore Drive," recalls Chuck.  

"There was a game on and he just watched the game and seemed fascinated by watching it. From that time on I think he wanted to play hockey. He had a hockey stick in his hand." 

After that, the outdoor skating on Lake Nipissing continued for Chuck, Wyatt and the family during winter holiday breaks. 

High School Connection

Wyatt's rise in the hockey world has created some buzz in North Bay among a group of West Ferris alum who gather every Tuesday at Twigg's on McKeown Avenue to reminisce.  

Larry Tougas was two years behind Johnston in high school at West Ferris and he arranged a mini-reunion via FaceTime with Chuck earlier this week. 

The longtime former West Ferris high school teacher and coach recognized the Wyatt connection to North Bay in 2021-22 when Wyatt Johnston took the OHL by storm winning the OHL scoring title with the Windsor Spitfires posting 124 points in only 68 games. 

Tougas watched Johnston's progress intently as he was the billet dad for North Bay Battalion forward Brandon Coe.

At the time Coe was battling Johnston for the OHL scoring title. 

"Brandon was leading the OHL in scoring and there was this gentleman in second and I don't recall exactly when I made the correlation that he had ties to North Bay and I actually went to school with his father," recalls Tougas as Coe ended the season with 101 points well behind the current NHL star. 

Tougas remembers Chuck Johnston as a popular figure in the West Ferris hallways and an impressive athlete.  

"What I remember of Chuck was as a grade 9-10 student and he was the school president as well as being on the hockey team," said Tougas. 

"Back then the hockey team was pretty strong as high school hockey was pretty elite."  

Chuck Johnston, whose sister Deborah and brother-in-law Mike Hart live in North Bay, was flattered by Tougas' high school memories about him.  

"I was a big man on campus to be sure," Johnston sarcastically told BayToday along with a chuckle during a recent FaceTime call. 

"North Bay was a great place to grow up and playing hockey at West Ferris was amazing."  

Tougas, who spoke to Johnston via FaceTime, says he'd love to meet Wyatt. 

"Now that Wyatt has become a big name in hockey it is kind of a neat thing in the West Ferris community because he has the school ties and the ties to North Bay," said Tougas. 

Chuck, the Hockey Dad

While Johnston says watching his son's rise to fame is amazing, it does come with challenges. 

"It is frankly surreal. I still don't believe it," he said.  

"I am always worrying about managing expectations. All the attention and exuberance around him. He just turned 21 years old. He is still learning the game so it seems quite surreal and somewhat uncomfortable that he is getting so much attention."

He believes the Stars organization has done a fantastic job getting Wyatt acclimatized to pro hockey when he made the team as a 19-year-old. 

In fact, due to his youth, the team suggested Wyatt move in with 39-year-old teammate Joe Pavelski's family as a billet. 

"That really speaks to how the leadership has really accommodated and supported Wyatt," said Chuck.  

"As soon as Wyatt told us he made the team Jim Nill (general manager of the Dallas Stars) phoned us right away to say, 'Listen, I know he's 19 years old but I have got Joe Pavelski who is going to be his billet family' and Joe Pavelski phoned five minutes after that and said, 'don't worry about it, we got it covered.'"

But when the hype and stress levels get high, Chuck likes to reflect on simpler times on a frozen northern lake. 

"The perspective I have in this is, it is a bit of wonderment that is stressful, incredibly exciting, but nerve-wracking,' he said.  

"Wyatt is a young kid playing against men and I always view him as that little guy playing on Lake Nipissing. He is not a guy with a big ego and he shouldn't, he's surrounded by fantastic players."  

Chris Dawson

About the Author: Chris Dawson

Chris Dawson has been with since 2004. He has provided up-to-the-minute sports coverage and has become a key member of the BayToday news team.
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