VANCOUVER -- His first practice net was a cradle. Not an actual hockey goal.
Not even a dryer with the door left open, as the story goes for phenom Sidney Crosby.
Nope, Erik Johnson used his sister's bed.
"I was always hitting her, so I just shot into the cradle," chuckled the hulking defenceman who's expected to be chosen first overall in today's NHL entry draft. "That's where it started.
"I was, I think, four years old and always jealous of my sister."
From those humble beginnings came, so many pundits say, a sure-fire blue chip defenceman figured to be called to the podium by the St. Louis Blues.
A year ago, this draft was supposed to be Phil Kessel's coronation. Instead, it's Johnson, the 6-ft. 4-in., 222-lb. product of Bloomington, Minn., who spent the season with the U.S. National Under-18 team and arrived in Vancouver as the apple of the hockey world's eye.
It's a scenario that seemed unfathomable a year ago, even to Johnson's friends such as Peter Mueller, who left the U.S. program to star with the WHL's Everett Silvertips.
"A couple of years ago, no one really noticed him at all," Mueller said during a luncheon yesterday that gathered many of the top prospects. "Now you look at him and, holy smokes, he's like Chris Pronger. It's very exciting to see him succeed.
"I remember we were wearing orange jerseys in summer hockey and now he's on a podium getting cameras shoved in his face."
It's easy to see why Johnson, who is planning to go to the University of Minnesota this fall, is so highly touted. Blessed not only with size, the 18-year-old racked up points -- 11 goals and 33 points in 38 games with the U-18 squad -- and has, by all accounts, agility and good passing skills.
While it's likely the Blues will take him with the first overall pick, Johnson' figures that's not necessarily a given.
"I feel the same as anybody else, anything can happen," he said.
"I don't think it's a certainty I'm going to St. Louis or anything like that. I'm going to go in there with an open mind and anything that happens, I'll be happy with."
From that point, though, today's draft is a crap shoot.
No consensus No.-2 can be found. Though Kessel, who was pegged as the runaway first-overall pick for a couple of years, has seen his stock fall, it's not far-fetched to see him go after Johnson.
Still, Kessel said yesterday he's not discouraged by the development.
"I don't really care," said Kessel, who potted 14 goals and 42 points in 34 games for the Golden Gophers. "I'm just ready to get drafted and excited by whatever team picks me. You can only get drafted by one team so it doesn't really matter."
Potentially sliding into the No.-2 post is Winnipeg-born sniper Jonathan Toews, the forward whose star rose during the world juniors in January.
Or else there's the next Staal boy, Jordan, who also flew up the charts after potting 28 goals and 68 points in 68 games in the OHL's Peterborough Petes.
The hot rumour has Pittsburgh dealing its second-overall pick to Carolina for Jack Johnson, a defenceman chosen third overall last year, so the Hurricanes can reunite Jordan with Eric.
Jordan tried to downplay that possibility but admitted it's an exciting prospect.
"I haven't really thought about it," he said. "I guess we'll have to wait and see. I'm sure it'd be pretty exciting if I get the chance to play with him and it would be pretty cool."
Of course that would be mean more comparisons to his brother and, with it, more pressure.
"There's always going to be comparisons and he is my brother, so I can't blame him for doing so well this year," Staal said.
"If it wasn't Eric, it would be someone else and I don't mind the comparisons to my brother. Hopefully, I can follow his footsteps.
"There's always pressure. Just being rated this high puts pressure there. To our family and to me, it doesn't matter. We're so easy going and you don't want to let those things bother you when you're out playing.
"When I'm on the ice, nothing else is on my mind other than playing hockey."
- ERIK JOHNSON, D
March 21, 1989; 6-ft. 4-in., 222-lb. 2005-06: US National U-18 team 38 GP 11-22-33 57 PIM
- JONATHAN TOEWS, C
April 29, 1988; 6-ft. 1-in., 195-lb.
2005-06: University of North Dakota 41 GP 21-17-38 11 PIM
- PHIL KESSEL, C
Oct. 2, 1987; 6-ft. 189
2005-06: University of Minnesota 39 GP 18-33-51 14 PIM
- JORDAN STAAL, C
Sept. 10, 1988; 6-ft. 4-in., 209-lb.
2005-06: Peterborough (OHL) 68 GP 28-40-68 69 PIM