Upside Down: The Weird, Sad Bankruptcy of the NHL’s Jack Johnson

National Hockey League

Two months into the 2012 NHL lockout, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson uploaded some frustrated comments to his now-defunct personal website.

I want to work! I’m a professional athlete and I want to play hockey! In my chosen profession, I don’t have until I am 60 or 70 years old to do this job. My window of opportunity to play professional hockey is limited. If I’m lucky, I can play until I’m 40 … [E]ach month, each week, and each game that is cancelled is an opportunity I will never get back.

It was hard not to think about that last Thursday, when the hockey world was rocked by a report from Columbus Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline that the 27-year-old Johnson — who in 2011 signed a seven-year, $30.5 million dollar contract — had driven to a federal courthouse earlier this season and filed for bankruptcy.

On the surface, Johnson’s story has all the usual hallmarks of a personal financial collapse: There are the real-estate money pits, the shady operators (one investment fund is literally named “CYA”), the loans borrowed at outlandish interest rates, and the cash flows that never quite synced. He was certainly far from the first athlete, or even the first NHL player, to suffer this sort of downfall: Sergei Fedorov sued a financial adviser over $43 million in 2010. Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier filed for bankruptcy in 1994. Bryan Berard was one of a number of NHLers swindled by an investor peddling real estate and golf course investments.

But Johnson’s report also contained plenty of distinguishing and extreme details. The cast of characters involved people like recently elected Iowa congressman Rodney Blum and embattled former Michigan basketball player Maurice Taylor. Last spring, according to Dispatch columnist Michael Arace, Johnson’s Blue Jackets teammates had to “act as a sort of human shield” as he tried to evade being served a subpoena inside Nationwide Arena.

And the biggest shocker of all: Two of the people most responsible for the mismanagement of Johnson’s life savings were his own parents, Jack Sr. and Tina. “I’d say I picked the wrong people who led me down the wrong path,” Johnson told Portzline. But, as the saying goes, you can’t pick your family.

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It isn’t unusual for a teenage athlete with a bright future to have parents whose involvement borders on too-close-for-comfort. At its best, this relationship is a safety blanket, a beacon of stability in a lifestyle that typically offers very little of that. (Patrick Kane infamously brought along suitcases of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, as well as his mama, for comfort when he played in Switzerland during the lockout.) At its worst, you start to wonder who is living whose dream.

Growing up, Jack Johnson was the kind of highly touted player who saw time on all the right teams. One of his close pals as a teen was Sidney Crosby; the two won the national championship together as teammates at the Minnesota boarding school and hockey factory Shattuck–St. Mary’s. Jack Sr. and Tina were mainstays at the Shattuck rink, having quit their jobs back in Michigan to move to a house “pretty much right across the street from the school.” They would move again when Johnson began playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. (This decision made at least some sense — Johnson had committed to the University of Michigan at the age of 15.) When Johnson played for the Wolverines, his dad gained notoriety for performing intermission lawn mower dances at Yost Arena.

After his freshman year, Johnson was taken third by the Carolina Hurricanes, just two picks after his friend Crosby. When the spring came, GM Jim Rutherford tried to lure his young star into leaving college and joining the surging Hurricanes for their postseason push in 2005. Johnson declined, opting to stay in the NCAA for another year. At the time, spurned parties muttered that it seemed like Johnson’s dad was the one who didn’t want to leave Michigan — but it was the stuff of rumor, and after the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup that spring, Rutherford traded Johnson’s rights to the Kings.

Johnson’s early career is filled with those sorts of near misses. He was left off Team USA for the 2005 World Junior Championships. In 2012, he was shipped to the floundering Blue Jackets, only to watch as his old squad promptly won two Stanley Cups in three seasons. And earlier this year, he missed the cut for the U.S. Olympic team despite being a member of the 2010 silver-medal-winning squad. All of this must have stung, but outwardly he was the same as ever, having fun with misguided folks on Twitter who constantly mistook him for the “Bubble Toes” crooner of the same name.

“Singing and surfing. 2 things I can’t do,” he replied to a fan who wrote, “LOVE your music man. should surf in Hawaii together sometime.” Johnson expressed shock at having his own Pandora station and invited one confused music lover to a Blue Jackets game. To a user who mistakenly wrote, “Thanks @JackJohnson3 for being the only thing getting me through this homework,” he shot back: “You’re welcome. Must be my Michigan education.”

It was typical Johnson: engaging with civilians online, acting like a goof, always excited to shout out his Ann Arbor ties. By the offseason, though, Johnson had quietly canceled his Twitter account as he spiraled further into debt.

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One of the easiest ways to lose great sums of money is to borrow it, and that’s what it appears Johnson’s parents did. Armed with power of attorney over his finances (Johnson fired hockey superagent Pat Brisson in 2008 and granted full control of his accounts to his mother in 2011), his parents operated as they always had: They bought a place right near his latest home rink. Johnson was with the Kings at this point, so the puck-à-terre was a $1.56 million Manhattan Beach pad financed by bafflingly high-interest funding. Portzline outlines the early escalation:

[Steve] Miller was the first lender, extending a $1.56 million loan on March 9, 2011, that Johnson’s parents used to buy the home in Manhattan Beach, a third of a mile from their son’s residence, while he played for the Kings.

Johnson, a source said, believed that his parents took out a mortgage using money left to them in the will of a relative who had recently died.

The loan — which carried 12 percent interest, almost three times the market rate — quickly went into default because it called for an initial payment of more than $1 million. (The contract extension Johnson signed with the Kings didn’t kick in until the following season, and he didn’t have that much in the bank.) One day after the home loan was signed, on March 10, 2011, the Johnsons borrowed $2 million at an interest rate of 12 percent from a software developer in Iowa named Rodney L. Blum, who this month won a seat in the U.S. House. Blum’s office did not respond to interview requests left with Blum’s spokesman by The Dispatch. It’s unclear how Johnson’s family came to know him or why he was making a personal loan at a high interest rate.

Barely a month later, on April 14, 2011, the Johnsons borrowed $3 million — at 24 percent — from Pro Player Funding in upstate New York, a company that “monetized” several NFL players’ contracts during a work stoppage. Former NFL stars Vince Young, who went bankrupt, and Bryant McKinnie, who was sued for default, were among the company’s clients.

That’s $6 million, all before Johnson had even begun playing under his new contract.1 It was a short trip from making those sorts of deals to engaging in transactions that used Johnson’s future earnings as collateral. By last season, a good quarter of his paycheck was being preemptively garnished to pay down his skyrocketing debts.

It’s hard to fathom how anyone can squander an alleged $10 to 15 million, but contract monetization isn’t really anything different from a dreaded payday loan, regardless of how slickly it’s gussied up. You wonder how Johnson didn’t realize any of this sooner, and then you think about those days that you ignore the bills piling up on your own desk, hoping they’ll go away.

Johnson has reportedly cut off ties with his parents, who now live in Michigan with his 16-year-old brother, Kenny, another Michigan recruit. As part of his bankruptcy filing, Johnson has asked that the court allow him to maintain his current banking accounts: savings of $2,202.62 and a checking balance of $6,339. That’s about the net worth of plenty of 27-year-olds, but most of them aren’t professional athletes whose careers will grind to a halt within the next decade.

It’s not entirely clear where Johnson goes from here, but rereading the end-the-lockout statement he wrote in the fall of 2012, it’s impossible not to wince when you get to the part where he complains about owners trying to cut back on deals they had already signed:

The concept that the owners are trying to dismantle existing contracts that they in good faith offered, signed, and committed to is appalling, unprofessional, and disgraceful. I negotiated my own contract, without an agent, with the confidence and belief that the owner offering me that contract operated by the same convictions and principals [sic] as I do.”

Which leads to the inevitable conclusion: It’s one thing to feel taken for a ride by your team’s owner. That’s just business. But when it’s your own parents? That’s more like betrayal.

Filed Under: NHL, Hockey, Jack Johnson, Sergei Fedorov, Columbus Blue Jackets, Bryan Trottier, Los Angeles Kings, Maurice Taylor, NHL Lockout, Pat Brisson, Bryan Berard

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes