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Chris Murphy, Published November 19 2013

Ex-Fargo Force assistant coach killed by train described as 'fun loving,' 'great member' of UND hockey family

FARGO – Dave Noah had lunch Monday afternoon with Chad Johnson, his friend of two decades.

It was like any meeting with Johnson. The two talked about hockey, Thanksgiving plans and a trip to the lakes they had just returned from.

It was just lunch, but hours later it would become more than that. It would be their last conversation.

“It was just a regular lunch,” Noah said. “I was happy to see him, and we just talked. He was always one of those guys that asked about your family or how you were doing. It’s a tragedy.”

Johnson, 43, of Fargo died after being hit by a train later Monday afternoon in the 4200 block of Main Avenue. Johnson’s vehicle was found nearby.

“We’re comfortable saying, at first blush, there was no foul play involved,” Fargo police Lt. Joel Vettel said. “It’s too early in the investigation to declare what might have been the motivation. We’ll have to wait to get a toxicology report. We’ll have to establish how he got there and why. That may take a couple of weeks.”

Johnson, who played hockey at the University of North Dakota for four seasons, is a former assistant coach for the Fargo Force hockey team in the U.S. Hockey League. He resigned in September as coach of the Lincoln Stars of the USHL. He compiled a record of 110-62-12 during his three seasons with the Stars, including a USHL Western Conference regular season championship in 2011-12.

Stars President Jim Pflug knew Johnson for 18 years and last week was planning a trip to Canada this summer with him.

Pflug woke up Tuesday morning with missed calls and a voicemail from Chad’s brother, Steve, to call him.

“Shock,” Pflug said. “Can’t process or understand it. I don’t think we’ll ever really understand why this happened. Still dealing with a lot of emotions here in the Stars office. As a staff, we’re trying to hold each other up.”

Force General Manager Jon Kram said he was contacted Tuesday morning about Johnson’s death.

“Our deepest sympathies, thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends,” Kram said. “He was an extremely fun-loving guy, one that his players fully enjoyed. He invested his time to his team, not only on the ice, but to develop as young men.

“Everyone is shocked. It’s troubling. It’s very sad news to get.”

When Johnson resigned from the Lincoln Stars in September, Pflug stated in a release that Johnson decided to return to Fargo so he could be with family and address some health issues before they became more serious.

Health issues were also the reason Johnson took a leave of absence in September 2010 from his coaching duties with the Stars. A week before announcing the leave of absence, according to the Stars, Johnson underwent a series of medical tests and was advised by physicians to take some time away from hockey to focus on his health.

Johnson recently talked to Pflug about how much he missed the sport.

“I had a good conversation with him a week ago on Sunday,” Pflug said Tuesday. “Talked about how much he missed hockey and wanted to stay involved. He told me that he appreciated the opportunity in Lincoln. He didn’t realize how much he was going to miss it.”

Johnson began his USHL coaching career with the Stars in 1996-97 as an assistant to his brother Steve, helping lead the Stars to a Clark Cup title. He stayed for two more seasons before pursuing other jobs in junior hockey leagues.

Johnson returned to the USHL with the Fargo Force as an assistant under Dean Blais in 2008-09. He was reunited with his brother the next season when Steve became the head coach of the Force.

“The USHL lost a member of its family last night,” USHL President and Commissioner Skip Prince said in a news release Tuesday. “Chad Johnson was a talented and successful coach, as his record shows, but he also had a way of connecting to people, which was special, from his players to the fans in Lincoln and Fargo where he coached to those of us here at the League office. We will miss him, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

Johnson, a Grand Forks native, played for UND from 1990-93. He was selected by the New Jersey Devils in the sixth round – 117th overall – in the 1988 NHL draft. He played three seasons of minor pro hockey before starting his coaching career.

Two of Johnson’s nephews are freshmen on the UND men’s hockey team this year – forward Luke Johnson and defenseman Paul LaDue. Johnson coached both of them for the past two seasons in Lincoln.

Current UND hockey coaches Dave Hakstol and Dane Jackson were Johnson’s teammates for two years at UND.

“The UND hockey family lost a great member,” Hakstol said. “Chad had such a positive impact on everyone who knew him, including myself, his UND teammates, and the hundreds of kids who loved playing for him. We are all better for knowing him, and we will miss his quick wit and genuine friendship. We will have Chad and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548