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Former UND hockey player Chad Johnson hit, killed by train in Fargo

FARGO -- Dave Noah had lunch with Chad Johnson -- his friend of two decades -- Monday afternoon. It was like any meeting with Johnson. The two talked about hockey, Thanksgiving plans and a trip to the lakes they had just come back from. It was ju...

Chad Johnson (right)
Brothers Steve Johnson, left, and Chad Johnson (David Samson / The Forum)
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FARGO -- Dave Noah had lunch with Chad Johnson -- his friend of two decades -- Monday afternoon.

It was like any meeting with Johnson. The two talked about hockey, Thanksgiving plans and a trip to the lakes they had just come back from.

It was just lunch, but hours later it would become more than that. It would be the last conversation Noah would ever have with Johnson.

"It was just a regular lunch," Noah said. "I was happy to see him and we just talked. He was always one of those guys that asked about your family or how you were doing. It's a tragedy."

Johnson, a former UND hockey player and longtime hockey coach, died of injuries related to being struck by a train Monday, Fargo police said in a written statement released Tuesday morning. Fargo police said Tuesday there was no foul play involved.

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"We're comfortable saying, at first blush, there was no foul play involved," Fargo Police Lt. Joel Vettel said. "It's too early in the investigation to declare what might have been the motivation. We'll have to wait to get a toxicology report. We'll have to establish how he got there and why. That may take a couple of weeks."

Johnson, a Grand Forks native, played hockey at UND for four seasons. He was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the sixth round (117th overall) in the 1988 NHL draft. He played three seasons of minor pro hockey before starting his coaching career.

Family devastated

Two of Johnson's nephews are freshmen on the UND men's hockey team -- forward Luke Johnson and defenseman Paul LaDue. Johnson coached both of them for the past two seasons in Lincoln.

"Extremely hard to process this loss," LaDue wrote on Twitter. "Chad was one of the best guys I have ever known and I'm very thankful for the years I got to spend with him. He always brought a smile to everybody in the room and he will be greatly missed by myself and everyone who got the chance to meet him. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."

Current UND hockey coaches Dave Hakstol and Dane Jackson also were Johnson's teammates for two years in college.

"The UND hockey family lost a great member," Hakstol said. "Chad had such a positive impact on everyone who knew him, including myself, his UND teammates, and the hundreds of kids who loved playing for him. We are all better for knowing him and we will miss his quick wit and genuine friendship. We will have Chad and his family in our thoughts and prayers."

Johnson is a former Fargo Force hockey team assistant coach who resigned in September as coach of the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. He compiled a record of 110-62-12 during his three seasons with the Stars, including a USHL Western Conference regular season championship in 2011-12.

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Fishing trip planned

Stars President Jim Pflug knew Johnson for 18 years and was planning a trip to Canada this summer with him last week. Pflug woke up Tuesday morning with missed calls and a voicemail from Chad's brother Steve to call him only to find out there would be no trip to Canada nor would there ever be any conversations about hockey or life with his friend.

"Shock," Pflug said. "Can't process or understand it. I don't think we'll ever really understand why this happened. Still dealing with a lot of emotions here in the Stars office. As a staff, we're trying to hold each other up."

Force general manager Jon Kram said he was contacted Tuesday morning about Johnson's death.

"Our deepest sympathies, thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends," Kram said. "He was an extremely fun-loving guy, one that his players fully enjoyed. He invested his time to his team, not only on the ice, but to develop as young men.

"Everyone is shocked. It's troubling. It's very sad news to get."

In a Lincoln Stars release in September, Pflug said: "Chad has indicated to us that he'd like to return to Fargo so that he can be closer to his family, and address some health issues before they become more serious.

"Chad came in under difficult circumstances, and along with Jimmy McGroarty, helped restore the winning attitude that our organization is known for. He's a great coach and friend, and we appreciate the sacrifices he's made on our behalf. We're sorry to see him leave the Stars organization, but support his decision 100%."

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Health issues

In September of 2010, Johnson took a leave of absence from his coaching duties in the USHL. A week before announcing the leave of absence, according to the Stars, Johnson underwent a series of medical tests and was advised by physicians to take some time away from hockey to focus on his health.

Johnson issued a statement when he left the team in 2010 that said: "I sincerely appreciate the support of the Stars organization, the players, and fans while we deal with this issue. I'm excited for this year's team, and look forward to returning after a full and complete recovery."

Johnson recently talked to Pflug about how much he missed the sport.

"I had a good conversation with him a week ago on Sunday," Pflug said. "Talked about how much he missed hockey and wanted to stay involved. He told me that he appreciated the opportunity in Lincoln. He didn't realize how much he was going to miss it."

Johnson first began his USHL coaching career with the Stars in 1996-97, as an assistant to his brother Steve, helping lead the Stars to a Clark Cup title. He stayed for two more seasons before pursuing other jobs in junior hockey leagues. Johnson came back to the USHL with the Force as an assistant under Dean Blais in 2008-09. He would be reunited with his brother the next season, as Steve became the head coach, and the two would lead the Force to the Clark Cup Final series in both seasons.

"The USHL lost a member of its family last night," said USHL president and commissioner Skip Prince in a press release. "Chad Johnson was a talented and successful coach, as his record shows, but he also had a way of connecting to people, which was special, from his players, to the fans in Lincoln and Fargo where he coached, to those of us here at the League office. We will miss him, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family."

Body found by tracks

A BNSF Railway train crew reported seeing a body near the railroad tracks in the 4200 block of Main Avenue around 5:30 p.m.

Johnson's vehicle was found nearby.

"This is a very isolated area, even though it is in the middle of our community," Vettel said. "The reason why the individual was back here is something we are trying to establish."

Vettel said the train crew that reported the incident was not believed to be on the same train that struck the man.

Vettel said the accident likely happened within "hours" of when the crew spotted the body.

He said BNSF crews were assisting officers in the investigation and video of the railroad tracks may be available.

"If one [of the cameras] was able to catch this issue, certainly we'll be looking at that," Vettel said.

A spokesman for BNSF said in an emailed statement to The Forum that the man wasn't killed "anywhere near a designated crossing.

"Being on or near railroad tracks in any place other than a designated crossing is extremely dangerous and illegal. BNSF supports safety education efforts in communities throughout the state to help people of all ages understand that they need to stay away from railroad tracks to stay safe."

Herald staff writer Brad Schlossman contributed to this report.

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