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Marc Johnstone, the underdog longshot who made it to the NHL

A unique and unlikely path to the big time

Pittsburgh Penguins v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

Every once in a while in sports, a feel-good story will pop up that even Disney would pass on for being too far-fetched. Marc Johnstone getting the spotlight to take his “rookie lap” and first steps in the NHL would have made for an emotional climax of one of those improbable stories that is almost too good to dream up, let alone be true. Except in this case it is.

Johnstone, 27, is on the older side for a player to skate in their first NHL game. In the big picture his slightly advanced age is probably the closest to normal aspect about his longshot journey to make it to the show.

“Everybody has a different path,” Johnstone told the PG yesterday. “It’s not about whether you get here at 18 or get here at 27. It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “You’ve just got to put your head down and go to work. And if you want it badly enough, anything is possible.”

While he is absolutely correct on all accounts there, the path that Johnstone took to make it on the ice for an NHL game is certainly worth telling and celebrating because of its uniqueness.

Johnstone didn’t make the initial step of his career, the USHL, until age-19. That league opens up for players as young as 16. All the top players tabbed for bright futures are typically looking to get out of that league for the next step by the time Johnstone was even making it in. That’s an inauspicious beginning, but in a sign of things to come, once he made the team he was their captain the following season and found a way to move on to taking the next step.

The next step was NCAA hockey, in the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA). While this is D1 — and perhaps best-known as the conference that local area teams Robert Morris and Mercyhurst compete in — Sacred Heart and the AHA is not one of the major stages or types of places that are feeders for players to go onto making it all the way up to the NHL.

During this time was Johnstone’s draft eligible ages for the NHL, and needless to say he wasn’t even close to being a blip on any team’s radar at that point of his odyssey. Of all the thousands of players in his age group in college, Canadian juniors or European leagues that might dreaming for the fraction of slots available, Johnstone still was very far off and deep in the pack of potential NHL players.

After wrapping his four years at Sacred Heart (serving as captain for the latter two seasons) in the spring of 2021, a professional start was next for Johnstone. He signed an ECHL deal with South Carolina, but was cut from the team and thrown into a place where the majority of playing careers could have been all but over before it had much of a chance to begin.

Johnstone talked about that adversity and his positive attitude about the situation he found himself in just two summers ago earlier this year in a podcast with Nick Barden.

“He just kept with it for so many years, and through so many different obstacles in his career,” Marc’s father Thomas told the Penguins website. “Lot of uphill battles, where he starts to maybe doubt that he’s good enough to do it, but he stays with it. And sure enough, step by step, he gets here. He’s had great coaches, great mentors…”

Sticking with it in this case meant signing an ECHL deal with Newfoundland for 2021-22, where a former coach from the USHL and Sacred Heart brought him in and gave him the opportunity to keep his professional playing days going. Johnstone did the rest, playing in the ECHL for most of that season and rising to crack the AHL lineup for four games with the Toronto Marlies.

At this point, the rocket ship was attached to his career — Johnstone was upgraded to an AHL contract in 2022-23 with the Marlies, playing his first full season at that level. As a free agent this past summer, Johnstone was offered and signed his very first NHL deal — a two-year contract with Pittsburgh. That, of course, came by way of Kyle Dubas who had a bird’s eye view of Johnstone from the previous two seasons in the Toronto organization.

After NHL camp this fall, Johnstone was waived and assigned to Wilkes-Barre of the AHL until he was called up yesterday. In Wilkes, he continued to show that intangible “it factor” that you can’t quite say but know when you see it to score a literal last second buzzer-beater game-winning goal in November. Fast forward to now, and with the Penguins looking for a spark and some energy for their fourth line, the improbable journey to the very top was complete with the perfect candidate to fill what the team has been looking for.

“I know he brings a lot of energy,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a north-south guy. He’s good on the forecheck. He’s hard to play against. He can kill penalties. He’s been very effective for Wilkes-Barre this year.”

Everyone loves and underdog success story of the player who keeps plugging away, never gives up and all the hard work pays off to reach the pinnacle of their game. In front of his family and the world in Florida last night, Marc Johnstone got there.

“He still loves the game, and you can see it when he’s out there. Even though it’s on this big stage, he loves it like when he was five years old and he was playing it,” his father said. “So, for us, we were trying to keep it together. But then when he finally stepped onto the ice, it was pretty emotional.”

It’s a tale that would be dismissed as too unrealistic for the big screen, but the kind of inspiring success story that makes sports worth watching for anyone who can relate to chasing the dream and finding a unique path to the top, no matter how improbable it may be.