After addiction: Johnstone on road to recovery

Former Huskies winger David Johnston corrals a puck during a game against the Nanooks during the 2013-14 season at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Athletics)

When he arrived in Houghton in 2011, David Johnstone was one of a special group of freshmen that included Tanner Kero and Blake Pietila. A year later, Alex Petan arrived, and the quartet were instrumental in helping the Michigan Tech Huskies return to the college hockey map, eventually helping the team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980.

In his freshman year, he racked up 11 goals and 29 points in 39 games, flashing a skill set that left Huskies fans salivating for what the rest of his career might look like.

The 39 games he played his freshman year were the most he would play in his collegiate career. By the time he was a junior, he only dressed in 25 games.

Injuries became a defining theme in Johnstone’s time at Michigan Tech. Yet despite the separated shoulders and the multiple concussions, he still managed to average nearly a point a game, scoring 25 more goals and 74 points in 88 games over his last three seasons in Black and Gold.

Hockey was really all he knew.

From a young age, Johnstone was aware he possessed a special talent for playing the game that many Michigan-born kids take up.

“Hockey always came super easy for me,” he said, “like I could go out and, growing up, I could tell you how many goals I was gonna score in a game. It was pretty gnarly.

“I remember, I think we were in Buffalo, New York, (and) my dad said, ‘if you go out and score a hat trick, I’ll stop smoking.’ I went out and scored three. I scored two goals in like five minutes. The next shift, I lost my stick. There’s like three people on me. I had no stick in my hand, and I just had that feeling like it was gonna happen. I had no stick in my hand, but they couldn’t get the puck away from me. It was in my feet, and all that stuff.”

Despite having three older brothers who also played hockey, Johnstone’s talents were not going to be denied. At age 16, he left his hometown near Detroit, where he had grown up on the rinks of Novi and Royal Oak, and headed north to Traverse City to play for the North Stars in the North American Hockey League (NAHL).

Already 5-foot-10, but skinny as a rail at 150 pounds, Johnstone learned quickly that playing in the NAHL was going to be a very different experience.

“That was probably the biggest culture shock,” he said. “I was playing against 21-year-olds, like I played against (former Husky) Carl Nielsen. He was the same size as he was (at) 21, and I was 16 years old. Going against a guy like that, it’s scary, but you’re like, ‘Holy smokes. What’s going on?'”

Johnstone knew he had one advantage over his teammates despite his body shape.

“I could think the game better than most of my teammates,” he said. “My size wasn’t there. I knew that coming into it. My parents knew it too. They knew that it was going to be a rough year, and I remember I got the end of the season, (and) I just wanted to come home. It was mentally exhausting.

“I wasn’t scared, but it made me kind of reevaluate if I wanted to play hockey, because it was so that’s a hard transition.”

Being on the smaller side, Johnstone struggled with the physical aspects of hockey at a time just before concussion protocols were becoming a major part of sports. He suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion in Traverse City, but pushed forward and continued to play, because at that point, there was no real protocol to keep him from playing.

He did consider whether he should continue playing, but felt that he and his family would be disappointed if he chose to walk away at that point.

“I invested so much time, and it was at that point where if I stopped, I was failing myself and the people around me,” said Johnstone. “They always said do what makes you happy, but the way I think is, that was a lot of time, and I just didn’t want to see them upset.”

The next two seasons, Johnstone played for the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League and he thrived, eventually landing offers from four NCAA Division I schools, including Michigan State and Michigan Tech. He eventually chose Tech, in part because his older brother Jacob was there, but also because they wanted him to step in after his third year of juniors.

Playing for then-head coach Mel Pearson, Johnstone and his classmates helped the Huskies to their best record in five years at 16-19-4 and just the fifth time the team had won 10 or more games in 16 years.

After the euphoria of making it to the WCHA Final Five as a freshman, Johnstone admits the beginning of his sophomore year was when his life began to derail. The Huskies struggled out of the gates that season, and he and his teammates began to feel pressure to win. Johnstone admits that he started reading the fan forums on popular college hockey website USCHO.com, and that caused him anxiety.

“You can read the forums, and a lot of that stuff was super toxic at the time,” he said. “So (that) put a lot of pressure on a lot of the players and all that stuff. Then you have all the people talking about in the community, those opinions. Some people liked us, some people didn’t like us.

“It was just not a good thing at the time.”

The pressure he was feeling to try to help the team win in any capacity he could led to his seeking some medical advice. Once diagnosed with ADHD, he was prescribed Adderall.

Adderall helped numb Johnstone’s injury pain and allowed him to focus, which actually led him to be more successful on the ice than he might have been, but it also gave him a reason to increase the dosages himself, in the hopes of improving his on ice performance even more.

During his junior year, he returned from a concussion too early and felt more pressure to produce offensively.

“To be honest, after my first concussion, I was so freaking scared,” he said. “I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to do anything, but I felt the pressure of producing and I was so invested at the time in the program. I played through one, so (I was) in a fog. I did produce, but that’s when I started to take a lot more Adderall. I took it to help get through that stuff, because I couldn’t focus.”

Johnstone increased the dosages himself, especially on game days, to up to six times the normally prescribed dosage. He finished his career at Michigan Tech struggling to get through days, and continuing to use Adderall as he felt necessary.

On the one hand, looking back, he wanted to get out of Houghton as quickly as he could because he felt like he needed to be on Adderall just to go to the rink. However, looking back now, as he is working through addiction recovery, he realizes that choosing to leave early for a professional contract might have made the pressure to succeed even worse.

Within the past month or so, Johnstone was diagnosed with bipolar one disorder. He is now getting the treatment, both through medication and through therapy, he needs to be able to return to a normal schedule.

“It’s made me realize how sick I was for so long,” he said. “I wish I would have done something sooner.”

He is hoping that, once he settles into a routine, he can begin to help educate the next generation of student athletes about the hidden dangers of mental illness and its impact.

“I think that everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think that, with my experiences and my illnesses, that people need to educate themselves. Especially coaches, I think that they talk about purpose in life and all that stuff.

“I think my purpose is to help coaches and kids to understand that there’s more to this than just the X’s and O’s in the game. It’s a lifestyle and what you do at the rink can really affect what happens in your life.”


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