- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

Calle Johansson got an important phone call 15 years ago, one that he is forever grateful to have received. Bengt Gustafsson, a fellow Swede who had played for the Capitals for nine seasons, was on the line, and he was trying to convince Johansson to come to Washington.

Johansson had just been traded to the Caps from Buffalo, the team that had signed him to the NHL two seasons before. Buffalo was the only home he had known in America, and he was thinking about going back to Sweden.

"I wasn't happy about being traded," Johansson said. "I liked it in Buffalo, too. It was my first city, and it was good to me."

It may have been the all-time sales call. Not only did Johansson come to Washington, but he went on to establish himself as one of the anchors of the franchise. Last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets at MCI Center, Calle Johansson played in his 941st game for the Caps more than any other player in franchise history, passing Kelly Miller.

"I didn't really have a clue it was coming up so soon," Johansson said. "You never really accomplish anything until you win the [Stanley] Cup. But it is a nice thing."

It is more than a nice thing. As with Darrell Green, his career is a commitment of the heart not the pocketbook to this place where we live and the people who live here. It is a rare affirmation from a professional athlete that the personal and professional connections he had made an ocean away from the country he grew up in mean more to him than fattening up his wallet.

Johansson is hardly a charity case he is in the final year of a three-year, $6million contract. But that is less money than he could have garnered as a free agent on the open market for a defenseman with his experience and skills.

"Money was very secondary." he said. "I liked the team, the organization and the city. I can't really think of a better place to play hockey."

Sorry to get a little weepy about this, but isn't it nice to hear something like that and not have it said by somebody just looking to get something out of it, money-wise, image-wise, or any other way-wise? We should take a step back and take notice of it, as well as the fact that Johansson will have played more games in a Caps uniform than any other player who has worn the uniform. He is the living history of the Caps.

"I am happy and fortunate that I have been able to stay here so long, not only for me but for my family and the kids growing up, keeping the same friends and going to the same school and all that," he said. "It means a lot to me and has been really important to me."

That doesn't happen if the 35-year-old Johansson doesn't deliver on the ice as a defenseman with consistently solid not flashy or spectacular play. He has the franchise record for most points as a defenseman, 467; most assists, 355, and most power play goals as a defenseman, 53.

If you need any more evidence about the value of the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Johansson, just look at last year's disappointing season for the Caps. He suffered an injury to his right shoulder in the second game of the season. He tried to play through it but had to bow out after the 11th game. He had rotator cuff surgery in November 2001.

It was clear that Johansson's presence was noted. "You see the effect he has on our team," goalie Olie Kolzig said. "He missed nearly the whole season last year, and you saw what happened. He is our best overall defenseman. There is nothing flashy about him, but he gets the job done."

As much as Johansson loves playing here, it will come down to a business decision by Washington whether he will stay after his contract is up after this season. It will come down to whether, in the twilight of his career, coming back from a severe shoulder injury, he can still get the job done. He started slowly this season but has been improving of late and has shown enough for coach Bruce Cassidy to believe that he can still be Calle Johansson.

"He has probably gotten over the hump, and he will only get better," Cassidy said. "He is a real good decision maker with the puck."

He makes good decisions without the puck, as well. He knows he made the right choice 15 years ago.

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