A young hockey prospect’s tough journey trying to go pro
It was a cold, frigid October day in 2005. John Johnston’s grandson, Thomas Johnston, had just turned three years old. As a birthday gift, John decided to bring his grandson out to watch a Stouffville Spirit game, his town’s local Junior A hockey team.
John watched as his grandson's head bopped back and forth attentively watching the game, not saying a single word the entire time. It wasn’t until after the game that Thomas spoke to his grandfather.
“I remember after that game,” said John. “He came up to me and said, ‘I want to do that’ which is when I think he first fell in love with the game.”
The following summer, John took Thomas to Scarborough Canlan Ice Sports to get started playing hockey. He would skate in the morning and afternoon for two hours every single day.
John noticed his grandson had a natural talent for the game. It led him to enlist Thomas at just three years old in the arena’s three on three hockey league, which was permitted for kids ages six and up.
“When I first tried to do it, the person who was running the league said Thomas can’t play in the league because he needs to be six years old,” said John. “Luckily, we knew one of the coaches there and he ended up telling the person, ‘I know that kid, he can hang with the six year olds easily’”.
Thomas continued to show flashes of brilliance throughout his youth. In a house league game at seven years old, Thomas and his team needed to score at least eight goals if they wanted to move onto the playoffs.
“It’s probably my favourite memory of him playing hockey,” said Diane Johnston, Thomas’ grandmother. “He played his heart out.”
He ended up scoring eight goals that game. Everyone was dumbfounded. They couldn’t believe that he had really scored eight times to help the team move forward. As a memento, a parent on the team ended up getting all of the eight goal pucks, taped them together into a big cylinder and labeled them for each goal as a gift to Thomas.
“That was probably one of the coolest moments of my entire life,” said Thomas.
Thomas continued to pursue sports while growing up, playing hockey and baseball at the highest possible youth level.
However, due to the hectic schedule of playing both sports at a high level, Thomas had to eventually decide which sport he wanted to pursue at 13 years old.
“It was a tough decision since I really did love baseball,” said Thomas. “But hockey’s been such a huge part of my life that I just didn’t want to give it up and I felt like I had a better chance to succeed in it if I pursued it.”
That wasn’t the only big change in Thomas’ life. His family ended up selling their house in Stouffville, Ont. and were moving north to Lindsay, Ont. Thomas remembers the move vividly.
“I was so scared,” said Thomas. “I was moving away from everything I knew and was starting from scratch.”
Eventually, he became accustomed to the move. He found that comfort by playing minor league hockey in Lindsay, where he met lots of new people and made friends. Thomas played well throughout his time on the Central Ontario Wolves and attracted the attention of the town’s Junior A hockey team, the Lindsay Muskies of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), at 16 years old.
He demonstrated strong play in his rookie season, attracting the attention of scouts from various Ontario Hockey League (OHL) teams for the upcoming draft. He got numerous letters with teams expressing their interest in potentially drafting him in the middle to later rounds.
Thomas was excited. This was one of the first big steps he needed to take to help him secure his dream of one day becoming an NHL player.
On the day of the OHL draft, everyone in Thomas’ family came together at their house in Lindsay to hopefully watch him get drafted.
“We were all excited that day,” said Diane. “He had worked so hard up to that moment so we all wanted to see him get drafted.”
However as the night went on, his name was not called. The room that was once filled with optimism and hope was now filled with despair. Thomas silently walked up to his room and locked the door. He didn’t come out until the next day.
“I was devastated,” said Thomas. “I had worked so hard up to that point and I felt like I was snubbed.”
Things didn’t get any easier for Thomas. The following year, COVID-19 came along and hockey in the OJHL was shut down. He didn’t even know if he would have the chance to play junior hockey again.
“I was terrified,” said Thomas. “That feeling of not being in control of what was happening was scary.”
He spent the entire year just practicing with his team, trying to stay in hockey shape if games were to continue again.
Staying committed paid off, as Thomas got the call to go play hockey again for a 2021 season. He’s recorded 15 points in 26 games for the Muskies so far.
“I’m just happy I am able to get back [on the ice] and play again,” said Thomas. “I missed the game."