MADISON, Wis. – Two members of the media walked into MC’s Dugout in downtown St. Cloud about 10 years ago looking for Chuck Schwartz.
It wasn’t his real name, of course.
Chuck Schwartz was an alias for Vince Vaughan’s character used in the 2005 film Wedding Crashers and the pen name of this mysterious man, who suddenly announced major college hockey news on a Wisconsin Badgers blog.
These curious members of the media had to know: Who was he? What is his real name ? What is the story of his life? How did a St. Cloud State student become a fixture on a Wisconsin Badgers beat that was already covered by the nation’s top two 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, Wisconsin. He had a passion for hockey. The highest level he played was Eau Claire North High School. As a senior, he had four points.
“Those were really big four points,” Johnson joked.
Writers told Johnson he had a bright future in the news business. Johnson said he intended to sue him.
“I thought full-time journalism, especially if it could happen in hockey, was going to be the way,” Johnson said.
But an email in 2013 changed everything.
Jon Hull, the Muskegon Lumberjacks assistant general manager at the time, read the blog and was impressed with Johnson’s player scouting reports. Hull asked Johnson if he would be interested in helping Lumberjacks reconnaissance players.
“To be honest, I never considered it an option,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think it was realistic. I didn’t play at a high level. I was really doing stuff for fun.”
But Johnson agreed. He worked the first year for free.
“That’s how it all started,” he said.
In the space 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 of the Sioux City Musketeers.
On Saturday night, a team Johnson built during his three years as GM won the Clark Cup, bringing Sioux City the first USHL title in 20 years.
It was the final step in Johnson’s astonishing rise in the hockey world.
“I think he’s relentless on the hunt for players,” said Sioux City head coach Luke Strand, who boldly hired Johnson for his first full-time hockey job in 2017. “He’s relentless looking for relationships that could create an opportunity for a player. Ultimately, his passion and focus on getting it right is elitist.”
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 news recruiting 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 got a little more specific, limited to Wisconsin recruits and who I thought might be good targets for them. I was going to see kids who I thought would be good targets and I started writing reports.
Hull, now a scout for the San Jose Sharks, was an avid reader of those reports. It 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 looking to stay in the scouting world.
He got in touch with PK O’Handley and Shane Fukushima of the Waterloo Black Hawks and offered his services. They agreed to hire him part-time. Johnson has worked much more than that, however.
Johnson soon moved to Madison and landed another part-time job at NHL Central Scouting.
During his third season with Waterloo, Johnson reconnected with Strand, who was also from Eau Claire and was living in Madison while scouting for the Calgary Flames.
“He would call me and be like, ‘I’m going to Cedar Rapids tonight, do you want to ride with me and go to the game?'” Johnson recalled. “I was a young child and took any opportunity to be with him.”
On one trip in particular, Strand mentioned that if he returned to the USHL, he would like to bring Johnson on board.
“I didn’t take him too seriously until he finally got the job from Sioux City,” Johnson said. “And it changed my life.”
Johnson left Waterloo to become Sioux City’s director of scouting.
“It was a very difficult decision to leave Waterloo,” Johnson said. “I loved working for PK and Fuki. We wouldn’t have the success we’ve had here without what I learned from them there. It was hard to leave, but the opportunity to lead my own draft was too hard to pass up.”
Strand was initially criticized by some for hiring someone with such non-traditional experience and little track record to lead the Sioux City drafts.
“It was an opportunity for him to take a higher position and see what he wanted to do with it,” Strand said. “He’s very driven by the scouting side of the game and we had the opportunity to open that door more.”
It didn’t take 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 retiring against Fargo. This year they won it, thanks in large part to the shrewd moves of Johnson, who added players who excelled under Strand and assistant coaches Colten St. Clair and Michael Fanelli.
Two of Sioux City’s best players this season were UND signings Owen McLaughlin and Dylan James. Johnson played a key role in bringing the two to Sioux City.
In the 2019 USHL Phase I Draft (players born in 2003), the Musketeers took a flyer 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 with Canadian major juniors before September 30 of the same year.
Johnson used that option to add McLaughlin, a product from Pennsylvania who was not chosen 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, but he was one of the best players in the whole camp. I had never heard of him. I had barely heard of him. team he was playing for, Valley Forge. But after a practice, I grabbed him and his dad, and I explained to them what the USHL was, and told them that we were going to add his playing rights. at the USHL.”
Sioux City selected Dylan James in the fifth round of the 2019 Phase I Draft.
Musketeers scout Keegan Bell had defended James all season. Johnson, however, wanted to see him and meet his family before the draft.
One week, Johnson flew to Montreal and met with another prospect and his family for two days. Then he flew to Chicago for the USHL Combine. Then he took a rental car and drove 11 hours to Thunder Bay, Ontario to see James play a game.
Johnson loved what he saw. He met James and his parents at a Boston Pizza and told them about the Musketeers program. James and his family seemed interested enough for Sioux City to choose him.
James came to Sioux City this year, became the first league rookie to score 60 points in six years and finished second to the Musketeers in scoring in the playoffs.
Johnson’s relentless work ethic comes as no surprise to those who have known him from 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 reading it or talking to him. He was on a mission to be someone you would know in hockey and it’s really cool that it pays off.
Sometimes Strand has to convince Johnson to slow down or take time off.
A few 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 was heading to the Twin Cities to scout some players after Boston.
Strand told Johnson he’s seen these players 10 times already and that’s enough. He instructed him to take a vacation.
“I thought he was joking,” Johnson said. “He was very serious.”
Strand did not allow Johnson to go to the Twin Cities games. Thus, Johnson respected his coach’s wishes and changed his flight from Boston to Cancun.
“It was December, so I didn’t have any warm clothes with me,” Johnson said. “I had to go find a mall and buy t-shirts, shorts and bathing suits because I had no clothes to go on vacation.”
He spent a week in Cancun before returning home for Christmas.
“One thing I will say about working for Luke and owning here is that it’s very much 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 win or lose. It’s a credit to our leadership here.”
Johnson’s hard work paid off with a Clark Cup, but he earned a solid reputation with the hockey world.
NHL scouts often consult him on players.
“I can’t say enough good things about Andy,” said an NHL scout. “He’s a wonderful person. He’s genuine, kind, funny and you always feel good with him. He’s worked so hard and won it all. He has an exceptional eye for evaluating and projecting players, and he has proven he has it for building teams as I constantly seek him out both for his hockey knowledge and who he is as a friend.
Although the Chuck Schwartz alias is long gone, some things never change.
When Johnson learned a story was coming about his job as GM, he said, “But I’m a behind-the-scenes guy!”
With a Clark Cup in his name — his real name — it might not last much longer.