The Dallas Stars defenseman once spent 22 months sidelined dealing with post-concussion syndrome. Though he had been cleared to return to the ice, he had never really recovered. Johns still has a lingering headache at all times. During the last NHL game in which he played -- Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames in the 2020 postseason bubble -- he looked up at the clock and saw that it was the second period, but didn't remember a single shift earlier in the game. He knew he was done.
Johns stayed in Dallas last season, sitting out the last year of his contract, then returned to his childhood home in Pennsylvania in early April.
"I kind of just sat in my house, and just drank, self-isolated and really didn't do anything," he says. "I wasn't golfing, I wasn't hanging out with my friends. I started getting suicidal thoughts. I was just in a really, really dark place."
One day, he came across the music video for "Live Before I Die" by Mike Posner and Naughty Boy on YouTube. The video details Posner's six-month journey walking across America.
"Why?" an early title card on the video reads. "I walked to become someone I'm actually proud of."
It turned out to be the inspiration Johns needed. He called up a friend. He broke out his rollerblades. And he, too, decided to travel across the country.
He had no idea the journey it would be.
Johns wrapped up his trek in Oregon this week, after around 2,500 miles traveled, and hundreds of new connections made. Maybe thousands. His direct message inbox is flooded with notes from all around the world, and each day he is tagged in dozens of videos of people sharing their own #MentalMiles, a term that Johns coined to spread his message about the importance of mental health.
He first posted about the journey on Instagram on June 13. "I kind of didn't realize I was announcing my retirement in that post, but I did," Johns said. "But I didn't think it would blow up like it did. Even before we started the trip, it was like, 'Wow, this is going to be something crazy. This could be something huge.'"
The friend traveling along with Johns is Jeff Toates, who worked for the Stars as a videographer. This season was also Toates' last with the organization, as he moved on to a new job. "It was the best text I have ever received, because it was out of the blue, it was a Thursday afternoon and he was like: 'I think I'm going to rollerblade across America.'" Toates said. "That was it. That was the text. It was the best. I was like, 'I'm so down.'"
Two days later, Toates booked a flight to Pittsburgh. They left about a week later. Toates filmed the journey for a documentary the two are looking to produce, and he knows Johns' raw vulnerability has potential for massive impact -- and to transcend hockey.
"Compared to what the league norm is, this is shattering some expectations and standards for typical media availability," Toates said. "I haven't thought of Stephen much in the context of being a hockey player, but the way he has opened up, the story he has to tell, it's definitely different from what people are used to seeing from hockey players."
Johns and Toates had a rough outline for their trip, and that was about it. For the first few days, they would wake up at 7 or 8 a.m., and Johns would blade for three or four hours with Toates trailing in a car. "Then I'd hop in the car, make up some ground for an hour or two, find really good roads, blade another three or four hours, set up camp, have some beers, talk about life, then go to bed," Johns said.
During the first few days, lace bite -- irritation on the front of his ankle -- was rough. The tan line from his hat was even rougher. Other than that, Johns said he feels remarkably good, especially considering he hadn't laced up skates since his last NHL game. What's more, he hadn't broken a sweat since then, either.
Johns and Toates have forged new friendships and rekindled old ones. In Chicago, Johns met a 21-year-old video creator, Jack-a-Trades, who travels by bus around the country chasing experiences. "He's the one that told me, energy follows good energy," Johns said. "He saw what we were doing, asked if he could join and rip a few miles with us, and basically drove from Washington D.C. to Chicago in a day just to skate with us."
In Idaho, they met up with Bobby Ryan, who in 2020 won the NHL's Masterton Trophy after publicly sharing his experience with alcohol abuse.
They've stayed everywhere from five-star hotels in Chicago to former teammate Joe Pavelski's house in Wisconsin to Airbnb's and campsites.
"In Yellowstone, we set up camp and stayed in a hotel," Johns said laughing.
"But that's the point about how many random people we've met in these towns and the connections that we've made," Toates added. "Our hotel that night was set up by someone we had met at the bar the night before, who just loved our story. We talked for a while, heard their story and they helped us out."
Johns has been humbled by the reaction, but also overwhelmed by how many people have found his story relatable, because it shows just how many people in this world are struggling.
Just six hours into the journey in Ohio, they were pulling out of a gas station when they heard someone shout: "Stephen!"
"I skate up to this kid and he asks, 'Are you Stephen Johns?' and I said, 'Yeah,'" Johns recalled. "And he said, 'I just wanted to let you know, I'm having a rough morning and I was just scrolling through Instagram and came across your posts. I have no idea who you are, but I just wanted to say it's incredible what you are doing, and your story put me in a good mood.'"
Johns was a second-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2010, and was traded to Dallas as part of the Patrick Sharp deal in 2015. He played 167 career NHL games over the course of four seasons, which has led him to believe: "I'm more famous for being a rollerblader than ever playing in the NHL."
When Johns is on the road, his first thought is: "S---, my feet really hurt."
"But really, I've been thinking about everything," he said. "I've had some crazy, life-altering moments on the blades. Tears of joy. Overcome with emotions, but it's so different because it's good emotions. I had been trapped with bad emotions for years."
For a while, Johns was angry -- at hockey, at himself, for not being able to get back on the ice. "The lead doctor on IMPACT testing we have to take every year to play, I went to him after the concussion that ended me," Johns said. "He said my headaches were from anxiety and depression, and I should go back to living my life and have beers with my buddies. And he sent me on my way.
"That was after like a six-hour work up. I wanted to do a full [work up], see how I'm doing, track how I'm doing year-to-year -- and that's what he said to me. And what do I do? I listen to doctors. So I went about my life not doing anything to try to get healthy because he said it would get better, it was just time."
Johns went right from the doctors office to the casino to have a beer.
"I lost $500 in like 10 minutes," he said. "I was like, 'I don't know if this is it, but here we go.'"
When Johns showed up at training camp prior to the 2021 season, he said he physically couldn't do anything. Then the months started flying by, and the waves of anxiety and depression got worse and worse.
"I've been to 15 neurologists," he said. "I've been to brain clinics. I've received minor surgeries where blood is pumped into my spinal canal. Like, I've been through it all. I've tried every frickin' antidepressant, I've tried everything. Everything made everything worse. It just haunts me that I spent four, five months in the time where I felt like I should have been getting better -- I was listening to my doctor -- and I went through a regular summer absolutely just grinding through workouts. The best thing for me would have been to see a neurologist that cared about me."
Johns doesn't look back on his hockey career bitterly. Actually, it's the opposite. "A lot of the peak time in my hockey career was in the minors, and I think the minor-league system in hockey is so fun and so unique," Johns said. "I played in a great city in Austin. I also played in a great city in Rockford [Illinois]. People don't speak too highly of Rockford, but I had the best teammates and the fans were so passionate. I love the game so much."
While he loves the game, he sometimes feels let down by the game. Through the 2021 playoffs, Johns said he's tuned into games when his friends are playing, and that's about it.
"It's tough to be in my situation," Johns said. "The whole issue of CTE isn't even acknowledged in our league. That makes it pretty hard for me to watch hockey now. I'm pretty positive I'm going to get [CTE] at some point, if I don't already have it now. Dementia and Alzheimer's runs deep in my family. Pretty much every neurologist I've talked to says I'm on the fast track to that. It's pretty taxing on the soul right there."
Asked what he hopes people take away from his story, Johns said the "obvious answer is the importance of talking."
"Head injuries are insanely important to talk about, and the recovery process and not rushing kids back -- especially kids," Johns said. "As an adult, you can make your own decisions, but as a kid you can't. That's the scary part about it. I can't even tell you how many times in my career I played with a headache, because it was 'just a headache.' It's an injury that can lead to a sickness, and a sickness that can lead you to so many different paths of life that you can never imagine. I mean, I never really understood anxiety or depression because I never had it. I just thought it was a normal thing if you lost a loved one, or broke up with someone, the standard stuff. I didn't really grasp how deep the roots go, how messed up it is, and how hard it is to get out of that hole."
As he wrapped up his trip, he's figuring out how to keep the #MentalMiles momentum going.
"I'm lucky because I have the means to be able to do this trip and not worry," Johns said. "There's a lot of people who work nine-to-five and only have the weekends to do something. So I'm trying to navigate how to bridge the gap, and help people in that way."
Johns and Toates announced a partnership with the Dallas Stars foundation and Mental Health America. They're encouraging people to make donations for every mental mile that someone rides, and Johns will donate for every mile he logged on the trip.
"My whole goal with this project was to inspire one person," Johns said. "I hope people watch our documentary and don't get anything out of it because they're doing great. But my whole focus is, if I can save one person, that's enough for me. I don't really care what people think of me, if they think I'm stupid for doing this or reckless. Because it's not about me anymore, it's so much bigger. And that's just awesome."