Much of what you are about to read is a transcribed phone conversation. Some everyday conversational filler words such as “uh”, “you know” “like”, “so” and so on have been reduced or removed from quotes for the sake of clarity.
This article deals with several difficult topics and includes some coarse language. Reader discretion advised.
David Johnstone was an absolute juggernaut for the Michigan Tech Huskies during his playing career from 2011-2015. His stat sheet is something to behold; through 127 games played, he racked up a plus/minus rating of +16, scored 36 goals, notched 67 assists and had a grand total of 103 points. He’s one of only 66 players in Michigan Tech history to have crossed the 100 point mark, joining the ranks of Husky greats like Mike Zuke, Pat Mikesch, Chris Conner, Alex Petan, Randy McKay, and Tanner Kero. His place in Michigan Tech history is etched in stone as one of the best to ever wear the black and gold. Which begs the question: why didn’t David Johnstone play a single game of pro hockey after his Michigan Tech career?
People with that kind of NCAA point total don’t just disappear from hockey. Some team, somewhere in the world at the professional level is dying to have a player that joined the century club at the NCAA level. People with the leadership, character, selflessness and perseverance of David Johnstone don’t hang up the skates that early for no reason.
“This is going to be real emotional for me, I might cry a bit. [Daniel] Sova was one of my good friends and [he was] a good whistleblower to come out and say [what he did]. It gave me the comfort to go out and come forward”
Until recently, Johnstone was suffering in relative silence about his experience at Michigan Tech and through his hockey life in general. “I have a hard time trusting people after a lot of instances in my life.” Now, the younger of the Johnstone brothers is looking to take control of his experience and tell his story to the fullest extent.
For almost forty minutes, I sat in relative silence, barring the odd affirmation I was listening or follow-up question for clarity while Johnstone laid his story out for me. Johnstone has recently been diagnosed with several mental health disorders, including Bipolar One and Schizoaffective Disorder. He was also battling alcohol and prescription drug abuse during his Michigan Tech tenure, the latter of which was recently covered in a Daily Mining Gazette article. To Johnstone’s credit, he’s taking his life back. We discussed his laundry list of daily medications, his therapy sessions and the coping techniques he implements on a day-to-day basis. He’s gainfully employed. However, Johnstone’s relationship with former coach Mel Pearson needs to be shared with the public before he can truly heal and move on. I want to do my best to convey his reality, both in facts and emotions.
David Johnstone came to Houghton in the Fall of 2011 by way of the United States Hockey League’s Indiana Ice. Arriving just a few months before him was the Huskies’ new head coach, Mel Pearson.
“My freshman year went great, I didn’t have a whole lot of injuries. Mel, for me, freshman year, was a good guy. But I remember, you know, new coach coming in, he kinda cleaned house; he wants his players. He wants to run the program the way he wants to run it. And all I remember is after training camp he would call [in] some upperclassmen and say ‘Hey, you know you’re welcome to stay at school but you’re no longer on the team.’ They take your bags away, take your equipment away and guy’s stuff was sitting in trash bags outside the locker room.”
For the first of many times during our call, Johnstone was noticeably choked up. It’s certainly a reality that any college hockey career is a ticking time bomb from the moment a player steps on campus. Inevitably, players have to move on from the team and there are times where teams accelerate that process given their roster needs. But in this case, it was almost as though Johnstone’s future was being foreshadowed before his own eyes; his legendary contributions treated like yesterday’s trash.
“I started losing trust in the game at that point because of some things that were happening.”
“Sophomore year was one of those things where it started to get really intense for me just because of the pressure…We struggled a bit at the beginning of the year, but we caught the wind.”
“I was one of the leading point guys my freshman year, I was getting looked at by Washington and a couple other teams. I had a sophomore slump, if you want to call it that, at the beginning of the year and I remember distinctly in Denver, [Mel] was under a lot of pressure and he wanted me to be a leader. He kind of just called me out in front of everybody. This was one of many times he said ‘David have you even fuckin’ hit anybody?’ Excuse my language, but that was after our first game in Denver. The next game I went out and I don’t even think I looked at the puck, I just went out and hit people. At the time, I didn’t realize how toxic it was. With coaching, you can’t do that anymore. You can’t reprimand people, because you don’t know if that person is going through a bad day, you don’t know if they’re going through some health issues, and all that stuff.”
Calling out a player on occasion is a generally accepted practice of coaching; sometimes it can be a productive motivator to help a player catch fire. However, Johnstone paints a much different picture.
“I started losing trust in the game at that point because of some things that were happening.”
While Johnstone’s problems at the rink were causing him distress, he was not able to get any reprieve in his schoolwork either. This led to a compounding of problems for him.
“I wasn’t the best at school because it’s hard for me to focus on more than one thing at a time, so it was hard for me to go to school and [play] hockey. It was extremely hard. I got diagnosed with ADHD at that time and that’s when I started to put a lot of things together about what I’ve been diagnosed with the last 4 or 5 months. I started to develop bipolar at Tech. So you know how with bipolar you have your triggers that spark mania and all that stuff? I didn’t want to go to the rink. I was trying everything I could to not go to the rink from the end of my sophomore to the start of my junior year.”
Johnstone also felt the same sense of hurt and confusion that another former player shared for THG’s previous article about player experiences with Mel Pearson.
“I went to the Winnipeg Jets camp that year (2014) and Mel was super weird about it. Pheonix Copley signed that year and Jujhar [Khaira] left. He was just not happy for guys that were chasing their dreams. Your dream is to play pro hockey, right? [In hockey] they talk about ‘for the boys’ and a ‘players coach.’ He was not. I did not understand any of it.”
Johnstone’s questioning of why a coach would be upset about a player leaving is understandable. It’s generally understood that the NCAA is a stepping stone that many players take on their way to their ultimate goal of playing professional hockey. The obvious upside to the system is that many stick around long enough to earn a degree to fall back on, but for players that are good enough to make the jump early, most would be foolish to not go take the money.
“He was always really weird about it [NHL teams getting in contact with players]. He was always like ‘let me know if teams call you’ or like he knew something was up… I don’t know if Mel wasn’t telling me something, but I [had the talent and] could have left after my sophomore year. They weren’t promoting me.”
Not promoting an underclassman player to NHL scouts is, to an extent, understandable for developing a healthy roster. Failing to properly care for a seriously injured player—especially one of your top producers—is far less understandable
“At the end of my sophomore season I took a really bad hit in North Dakota. MacWilliam laid me out, it has like 30,000 views on YouTube. But, I separated both my shoulders; I had SC separation, whiplash, [and] I couldn’t lift my chest up. They put me in a neck brace, they rushed me to the emergency room. In Mel’s post-game he said, ‘Yeah expect David to play soon.’”
Johnstone at this point became extremely upset. “What are you talking about? I can’t even move. The doctors didn’t put me in any slings or anything like that to help me recover.”
Johnstone then discussed the technical parts of his injury with me at length. “My collar bones were just, like, floating. The way I had to get up in the morning was I laid down—and I couldn’t lift my chest, and I couldn’t push down to get myself up—so I had to inch my way off the bed. Sometimes I had to have my roommates come get me off the bed and I was like that for like 4 or 5 months, so that took a toll.”
Rewatching the hit today, David Johnstone doesn’t get scared of the hit, he gets scared of Mel’s cold, emotionless reaction to watching one of his best players get seriously hurt.
With the recent horrifying injuries to Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, concussions—especially what happens when you get a second concussion quickly after a first—have been a hot button issue. Years before that high profile incident, a very similar situation happened to David Johnstone at Michigan Tech.
“My junior season, I got a concussion against Duluth. I was out for a week or two [pending] my test results. I don’t know if I came back too early, but I got a second one. It was against Michigan State. I didn’t get hit in the head, I fell on my butt. I don’t know if I was fully recovered. A lot of people, especially old school hockey players will tell you to suck it up, but I knew something was not right. I was out for a while; I want to say 2 months. If you look at my stats, you can see my point production going down from my injuries and recoveries that I had and my game totals went down. I came back and I wasn’t the same person after that.
“Mel called me into his office after that, we were on a losing streak or something along those lines and Brian Brewster, who was the athletic trainer at the time—thank God for him because I think he saved my life—but we went into the office and it was like a pissing match. He was like, ‘You need to get back out there and play,’ ‘Maybe if you just start working out you’ll feel better’ and Brew was like ‘No, he can’t do it. He’s not passing his tests, he’s not doing this.’ [Mel replied] ‘I don’t believe it.’ I would leave the rink crying from there on out, I did not feel safe anywhere on that whole campus. I haven’t even taken a step in the SDC since I left, isn’t that gnarly?
“I would leave the rink crying from there on out, I did not feel safe anywhere on that whole campus.”
“After that conversation, I looked at Brew and said ‘I don’t want to talk to him unless you’re there, alright? I can’t do this anymore.’ That was probably the breaking point of my career there. I was scared shitless. You watch all these concussion things and we watch a concussion seminar at the beginning of the year and it seemed like (Mel) didn’t fucking care. It was like he was more worried about winning because I could score goals, that’s what he wanted out of me. We were struggling to score goals and I was like, ‘I can’t play. I mentally can’t do it.'”
Since the time Johnstone played, a lot of concussion research has come out that may not have been available at the time. However, even if it does come with the benefit of hindsight, it seems as though Johnstone’s case was a mishandling by the coaching staff.
“Senior season, this is where it gets pretty gnarly. I was top 10 in the country in the first 4 games in points. Then I got hit really bad and I got a hematoma in my hand. It was all black and blue. It was at Lake State, I remember, and I screamed because it hurt so dang bad. I got another shoulder separation—I had 3 or 4 from my sophomore to the end of my junior season. We were playing at Northern and it was the very first shift of the game. I went and hit a guy and I went, ‘Ow, that hurt.’ I go into the locker room after playing the whole first period and I was like, ‘Brew, can I have some ice?’ He asked to take a look and says, ‘Your shoulder’s separated.’ I think Mel [asked], ‘Well can you go out and play?'”
“I’ve been dealing with so many health problems after playing, like I can’t bench press anymore, I can’t do a pushup without crying, my shoulders are all messed up.”
Johnstone went on to detail how Mel started to shame him for not being able to play. He alleges Pearson said things such as, “I used to play where I couldn’t even lift my arms over my head, you need to start being tougher.”
What he was saying was, in the words of Johnstone, “Stop being a pussy. Suck it up.” Johnstone swears up and down that he was sucking it up as best he could. He was in immense physical and mental pain. He just didn’t want to show any weakness to his teammates so he opted to play through it.
“I’ve been dealing with so many health problems after playing, like I can’t bench press anymore, I can’t do a pushup without crying, my shoulders are all messed up.
“Senior year came along and I couldn’t shoot the puck. It got to be worrisome because on the power play that was the play; swing it around and let me rip a one-timer and I couldn’t shoot. I went to the doctor and got an MRI. Usually when you get an MRI, the doctor will send the results to Brew and Brew will talk to the doctor and then kind of went from there. Well, the doctor came in right away. What the doctor told me was, ‘You have an impingement in your shoulders and if this wasn’t your senior season, if you were a 60-65 year old man, I would have you on the operating table next week.’ That’s how bad these were. But Mel also promised me, ‘Oh, if you suck this up it’s going to look so good for the NHL and AHL teams. You’re going to look like a team player.’ I said, ‘That makes sense. I don’t want to let my teammates down, we’re having a good year.'”
Afterwards, Johnstone detailed some things he did to try to get better. He had a cortisone shot, he had to take Mondays and Tuesdays off from practice to rest his shoulder, but still, there were several times Pearson called Johnstone out. One time in particular, things boiled over.
“I was so fed up with all these conversations about my injuries, all these talks about ‘Just suck it up, just suck it up’, ‘It looks good as a team guy’—but he called me out in front of everybody and said, ‘Just so you guys know, David has been cleared to play but he does not want to.’ In front of everybody. I left the rink crying so bad, man. I was like, ‘What the fuck? What are you talking about?'”
His fellow teammates were more in tune with how Johnstone was actually feeling. Many came up to him and comforted him, called Pearson’s actions “bullshit” and showed compassion for Johnstone’s difficult health situation. Even though he was medically cleared to play, Johnstone felt that his physical ability was so limited that he would be a liability on the ice.
The oft-forgotten part of being a student-athlete is the “student” part. In this arena, Johnstone was starting to have some questions about his eligibility. Given all the information he was given from athletics and his academic advisor, he was under the impression that he was on track to graduate at the end of his senior hockey season. However, his credit load was beginning to indicate otherwise.
“By the end of my senior season… stuff wasn’t adding up about how many credits I took going toward my degree. Now, I had another year of classes [beyond what I expected] to take after my senior season. I [thought to myself], ‘that doesn’t add up.’ I think you’re supposed to have like 70% or 80% of your [total] credits going into your senior season. That’s an NCAA rule, I would be ineligible if that was the case.”
This made Johnstone’s position rather precarious. The options that laid ahead of him were to hope for a professional contract at the end of the season, spend another year at Tech after his NCAA eligibility had concluded to graduate (spending money out of his own pocket to do so) or to call it a day on both his academic and athletic career.
Johnstone also gave me details of the process he had to go through in order to get his body ready to play a game. Bear in mind, this is a man who was only 23 years old at the time. He was not only dealing with physical pain, he was dealing with significant mental pain and an academic system that was failing him.
“The way I had to get ready for a game, we had those heating pads that you put on. If our game was at 7, I had to get there at 4:45 and heat my shoulders up for like 45 minutes. I had a pad on my front, a pad on my right, and a pad on my left heating them up so I could play. Brew stretched me out and all that stuff. It got to a point where it was so painful that I couldn’t even drive.”
The rest of the year continued the nightmare list of injuries for David Johnstone. In Mankato during his senior season, he separated his shoulder again and got yet another cortisone shot.
To cap off his hockey career, the Huskies made the 2015 NCAA tournament. “We lost to St. Cloud. You probably remember it, we were in North Dakota. Deep down, I knew that was my last hockey game I was ever going to play. It was so heartbreaking”
“Deep down, I knew that was my last hockey game I was ever going to play. It was so heartbreaking.”
In the weeks that followed the end of the season, professional teams start to pick up NCAA players they feel are ready to make the step to the next level. With 103 NCAA points, David Johnstone should have firmly been in that elite category. As aforementioned, somewhere along the line his credits toward his degree got so messed up that he would have to stay another year if he wanted to graduate. The path to walking down center ice of the SDC, adorned with cap and gown to receive his degree, was appearing less and less likely the more he investigated the situation alongside his academic advisor. There appeared to only be one way out: going pro. But when the teams started calling, they all had the same question: How’s the shoulder, David?
“Mel [during the season] would say, ‘You don’t need to get surgery, you don’t need to get surgery.’ And at the end of the year, I called him and said, ‘These teams, they’re calling but they’re asking about my shoulders.’ He said, ‘David, I’ve been thinking about it and you should get shoulder surgery.’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ He was telling people that I couldn’t do all this stuff with hockey because of my shoulders, but I sucked it up for him and played through so much stuff? It was just super heartbreaking for me because of all the shit I did and sacrificed.”
This about-face makes it seem that Pearson was more aware of Johnstone’s medical situation than he led on.
David Johnstone has been through hell and back with his life. The last half-year for him has involved a lot of self-discovery, reflection and making peace with who he is and what happened to him. His Facebook page is an incredible collection of his journey. He’s constantly sharing his mind about the topic of the day: his playing career, his addiction problems, his relationship with hockey, openly discussing his mental health problems including his behavioral unit visits and much more. Each day is a new battle, but he’s fighting the good fight.
For what readers should take away from this story, it’s tough to put it any better than Johnstone did himself.
“Me and him don’t see eye to eye and he caused me a lot of pain and trauma. I don’t know why he did the things he did, but I have to forgive him. I know he was under a lot of pressure. I just think he owes an apology to a lot of people out there and it’s unfortunate that he can’t see that he owes people an apology. Maybe one day, he will.”
David Johnstone is not broken anymore. He’s thriving. He’s owning his illnesses, he’s battling his demons and he’s taking control of his own life. He’s been an inpatient at mental hospitals and came out on the other side with constructive outlets for his bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. He’s gainfully employed as a beer delivery driver, laughing in the face of one of his biggest demons every day. He’s forgiven Mel Pearson and moved on with his life in a healthy and constructive way. Slowly but surely, he’s rebuilding himself. Even though he doesn’t need it to move forward, he feels as though it may be time for an ounce of self-reflection from the former Huskies coach and an apology to him and the other players he’s hurt.