With a roster full of underclassmen, the Soldotna High School hockey team is certainly going to need its leaders this season.
Johnny Mills, one of just four seniors on the squad, plans on being one of them it just might take him a little while before he's back out on the ice.
"It's very different. You look around and everyone's young," Mills said. "It's basically a team of freshmen, with a couple sophomores and a couple juniors. It's going to be a good team, but this year we're rebuilding."
While the Stars have spent the past couple weeks starting on their rebuilding project, Mills has had a project of his own, namely, rehabbing his leg after sustaining an injury in Soldotna's final football game of the season, a one-point playoff loss to Eielson in Fairbanks. Mills partially tore ligaments in his knee and fractured his tibia.
"I've skated once already in practice," Mills said, adding that he expected to return at 100 percent in about three weeks.
"It wasn't really my best day on the ice, but I'm doing a lot of physical therapy and working out at home."
This year was Mills' first season of football, aside from a Pop Warner stint when he was in sixth grade. Mills said he had concentrated on hockey and soccer in middle school and high school, and hadn't even thought about playing football until this year.
Mills played receiver, defensive back, returned kicks and was the kickoff kicker for the Stars this season. Mills finished the regular season with seven catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
"It wasn't that hard learning plays," Mills said of his gridiron experience. "What was hard was grasping some of the ideas, like positioning and how to react to things, especially defensively. It was trial and error for the first couple weeks.
"Offensively, I knew what to do, because everything was a set play."
In Soldotna's playoff game against Eielson, Mills had one catch for 28 yards and a touchdown, though the score was a Pyhrric one for Mills as he sustained his leg injury crossing the goal line.
Despite the injury, Mills said he had no regrets playing football.
"I loved football. It was a great experience," Mills said. "We had a good team this year, and a great season."
Off the field, Mills has pieced together a solid academic career, though he said it hasn't been easy.
"I have to work pretty hard to get good grades," Mills said, adding that teachers LaDawn Druce and Lana Syverson have been particularly supportive in his endeavors.
His grade point average is about 3.5, and he said he just finished sending off college applications to Gonzaga and Western Washington. Mills said he might have considered pursuing hockey beyond high school, but after his injury he said it's not likely. Instead, he's planning to pursue a degree in the business field.
Mills said he learned the value of hard work at his father's commercial fish site, where he started working when he was 8.
Mills said athletics has been a great part of his high school experience. Mills credited former coaches Pat Nolden and John Carlin with his hockey development, and said John Bramante and Jeff Siemers have been instrumental in his growth as a soccer player.
"I've definitely made a lot of friends because of it," Mills said. "I got to know a lot more people, and it's given me a chance to be a better player because of some of the amazing teams we've had in the past."
When he's not chasing pucks or soccer balls, Mills said he likes to spend his free time outdoors. Mills enjoys duck hunting with his family they own a cabin on the Susitna River across Cook Inlet and he's also been deer hunting on Kodiak. Mills has even been the Washington to hunt for duck, quail and pheasant.
Mills has been something of a sharpshooter for Soldotna's soccer team, netting a pair of crucial goals during the Stars' Region III championship run in his sophomore year.
"I don't know how you explain that the right place at the right time," said Soldotna soccer coach Siemers. "He makes a difference when it's needed for a big win.
"He (shows leadership) through his attitude and his desire to win. That's something that stands out his desire to play as hard as he can. You can always tell a leader by who's following, and people follow Johnny."
Mills began his soccer career in the Boys and Girls Club program, and played competitive club soccer for the Goldstrikers team in Anchorage during his middle school years.
Mills' hockey career has kept him a bit closer to home, playing Bantam B and Midget B for the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association. Mills said he started with KPHA playing Mini Mites as a four-year-old.
"I think that the reason I started playing was because of my dad (John). He's played his whole life," Mills said. "I just love it."
Mills said he's always been a forward and expects to center a line when he returns to the ice for the Stars.
"He's always been a good teammate and one of the leaders on our team," said Jon Verhelst, one of Mills' fellow seniors on the Stars hockey team. "Ever since I played with him in KPHA, he's been one of the top guys.
"He always works hard, even when we're down. He's always getting the team up."
Mills counts a goal against Dimond and an overtime win against Kenai last year in which he scored a hat trick his third goal was the game winner among his career highlights, but he' hoping this year's team, despite its youth and inexperience, can scrap together a few more.
"Unfortunately, Kenai always seems to beat us at regions," Mills said. "This year is going to be tough, but I'd like to surprise them for a change."
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