Once an anonymous blogger, Andy Johnson is now a Clark Cup-winning general manager
The Sioux City Musketeers won the prize for the first time in 20 years on Saturday night with a team Johnson constructed.
MADISON, Wis. — Two media members walked into MC's Dugout in downtown St. Cloud about 10 years ago looking for Chuck Schwartz.
That wasn't his real name, of course.
Chuck Schwartz was an alias Vince Vaughan's character used in the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers and the pen name for this mystery man, who was suddenly breaking important college hockey news on a Wisconsin Badgers blog.
These curious media members had to know: Who was he? What's his real name? What's his life story? How did a St. Cloud State student become a must-read on a Wisconsin Badgers beat that was already covered by the country's two best writers, Todd Milewski and Andy Baggot?
So, they gathered around a table that winter night and found out.
His name was Andy Johnson. He was born and raised in Eau Claire, Wis. He had a passion for hockey. The highest level he played was Eau Claire North High School. As a senior, he tallied four points.
"They were a really important four points," Johnson joked.
The writers told Johnson he has a bright future in the news business. Johnson said he intended to pursue it.
"I thought full-time journalism, especially if it could happen in hockey, was going to be the path," Johnson said.
But an email in 2013 changed everything.
Jon Hull, the assistant general manager of the Muskegon Lumberjacks at the time, read the blog and was impressed with Johnson's scouting reports on players. Hull asked Johnson if he would be interested in helping the Lumberjacks scout players.
"To be honest, I never considered it as an option," Johnson said. "I didn't think it was realistic. I didn't play at a high level. I was really just doing stuff for fun."
But Johnson agreed. He worked the first year for free.
"That's how it all started," he said.
In the span of four years, Johnson went from anonymous blogger to director of scouting in the United States Hockey League. Within six years, he was the general manager for the Sioux City Musketeers.
On Saturday night, a team Johnson constructed during his three years as GM won the Clark Cup, bringing the first USHL title to Sioux City in 20 years.
It was the latest step in stunning rise for Johnson in the hockey world.
"I think he's relentless in pursuit of players," said Sioux City head coach Luke Strand, who boldly hired Johnson to his first full-time hockey job in 2017. "He's relentless in pursuit of relationships that could spawn an opportunity for a player. At the end of the day, his passion and care about getting it right is elite."
From blogger to scout
Johnson's journey began as a journalist, where he blogged for Bucky's Fifth Quarter. While Johnson covered many aspects of college hockey on the blog, his forte was recruiting news and prospect analysis.
"I loved college hockey recruiting," Johnson said. "I started going to elite league games, high school games in Minnesota, high school games in Wisconsin and writing scouting reports on who I thought were good recruits in the Midwest. It kind of got a little more specific, curtailed to Wisconsin recruits and who I thought might be good targets for them. I'd go out and watch kids who I thought would be good targets and started writing reports."
Hull, now a San Jose Sharks scout, was an avid reader of those reports. He gave Johnson his first break into the scouting business. After a year, Hull left to become the general manager of the Lincoln Stars, and Johnson began searching to stay in the scouting world.
He got in contact with P.K. O'Handley and Shane Fukushima of the Waterloo Black Hawks and offered his services. They agreed to hire him on a part-time basis. Johnson worked far more than that, though.
Johnson soon moved to Madison and picked up another part-time job working for the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau.
During his third season with Waterloo, Johnson re-connected with Strand, who also was from Eau Claire and living in Madison while scouting for the Calgary Flames.
"He'd call me and say, 'I'm going to Cedar Rapids tonight, do you want to hop in with me and go to the game?'" Johnson recalled. "I was a young kid and I'd take any opportunity to be around him."
On one trip in particular, Strand mentioned that if ever went back to the USHL, he'd like to bring Johnson aboard.
"I didn't take it too seriously until he ended up getting the Sioux City job," Johnson said. "And that changed my life."
Johnson left Waterloo to become Sioux City's director of scouting.
"It was a very hard decision to leave Waterloo," Johnson said. "I loved working for P.K. and Fuki. We would not have the success we've had here without the stuff I learned from them there. It was hard to leave, but the opportunity to run my own draft was too much to pass up."
Strand was initially criticized by some for hiring someone with such a non-traditional background and little track record to run Sioux City's drafts.
"It was an opportunity for him to take an increased position and see what he wanted to do with it," Strand said. "He's very driven to the scouting side of the game and we had an opportunity to open that door further."
Making his mark
It hasn't taken long for Johnson to make his mark in the USHL and prove Strand right.
Last season, the Musketeers reached the USHL Clark Cup semifinals before bowing out against Fargo. This year, they won it, thanks in large part to shrewd moves by Johnson, who added players that excelled under Strand and assistant coaches Colten St. Clair and Michael Fanelli.
Two of Sioux City's best players this season were UND commits Owen McLaughlin and Dylan James. Johnson played a key role in bringing both to Sioux City.
In the 2019 USHL Phase I Draft (2003-born players), the Musketeers took a flier on Quebec Major Junior Hockey League first-round pick Israel Mianscum, but he immediately signed in the QMJHL. The USHL allows teams to replace Phase-I picks if they sign in Canadian major juniors before Sept. 30 of the same year.
Johnson used that option to add McLaughlin, a Pennsylvania product who was not picked in the Phase I Draft.
"I happened to see Owen at the Select 16 festival," Johnson said. "Not only was he one of the best undrafted players there, he was one of the best players in the entire camp. I had never heard of him. I had barely heard of the team he played for, Valley Forge. But after one practice, I grabbed him and his dad, and I explained what the USHL was, and told them we were going to add his USHL playing rights."
Sioux City picked Dylan James in the fifth round of the 2019 Phase I Draft.
Musketeers scout Keegan Bell had advocated for James all season. Johnson wanted to see him and meet with his family before the draft, though.
One week, Johnson flew to Montreal and met with a different prospect and his family for two days. Then, he flew to Chicago for the USHL Combine. Then, he picked up a rental car and drove 11 hours to Thunder Bay, Ont., to see James play a game.
Johnson loved what he saw. He met with James and his parents at a Boston Pizza and told them about the Musketeers program. James and his family seemed interested enough that Sioux City picked him.
James came to Sioux City this year, became the league's first rookie to tally 60 points in six years, and finished second on the Musketeers in scoring in the playoffs.
Johnson's relentless work ethic doesn't surprise those who have known him since his blogging days.
"He was doing the same thing when he was writing," Milewski said. "You could tell he wanted to do something with hockey. There was no doubt about it from reading him or talking to him. He had a mission to be someone you were going to know in hockey and it's really cool that's paid off."
Sometimes, Strand has to convince Johnson to slow down or take time off.
A couple years ago, Johnson was in Boston scouting for a week when he got a call from Strand. The Sioux City coach asked about Johnson's schedule. Johnson told him he's headed to the Twin Cities to watch some players after Boston.
Strand told Johnson he's seen those players 10 times already and that's enough. He assigned him to take a vacation.
"I thought he was joking," Johnson said. "He was dead serious."
Strand didn't allow Johnson to go to the Twin Cities games. So, Johnson abided by his coach's wishes and changed his flight out of Boston to Cancun.
"It was in December, so I didn't have any warm clothes with me," Johnson said. "I had to go find a mall and buy some t-shirts, shorts and swimming trunks, because I didn't have any clothes to go on vacation."
He spent a week in Cancun before going home for Christmas.
"One thing I'll say about working for Luke and the ownership here is that it's really a family culture," Johnson said. "And the culture is the most important thing. When you love the people you work with, it never feels like a job, whether you're winning or losing. That's a credit to our leadership here."
Johnson's work has paid off with a Clark Cup, but he has been building a strong reputation with those in the hockey world.
NHL scouts often consult him on players.
"I can't say enough good things about Andy," one NHL scout said. "He's a wonderful person. He's genuine, kind, funny and you always feel good being around him. He's worked so hard and earned everything. He has an outstanding eye for player evaluation and projection, and he's proven he has it for team building as well. I seek him out constantly both for his hockey knowledge and for who he is as a friend."
While the Chuck Schwartz alias is long gone, some things never change.
When Johnson was learned a story is coming on his work as a general manager, he said: "But I'm a behind-the-scenes guy!"
With a Clark Cup to his name — his real name — that might not last much longer.