Death of former Red Wing Greg Johnson likely a suicide, police say

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Greg Johnson, here battling with Steve Yzerman in front of the net, was traded to Pittsburgh by Detroit in 1997.

Former Red Wing Greg Johnson died of an apparent suicide, according to a Rochester Police report obtained by The Detroit News.

Johnson was found by his wife, Kristin, shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7 in a storage room in the couple's basement. A gun and a single bullet were found near Johnson, according to police.

An autopsy has been completed by the Oakland County Medical Examiner, which declined Wednesday to discuss its findings.

Johnson, who played for the Red Wings from 1993-97, was 48.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Tom Laidlaw, Johnson’s longtime agent, who declined to discuss the specifics surrounding Johnson’s death.

No suicide note was left, according to the police report. Johnson’s immediate family declined any comment, Laidlaw said.

Kristin Johnson told police he suffered "numerous concussions during his playing career,” but she witnessed no signs of depression.

Johnson’s death comes amid heightened scrutiny of brain injuries in professional athletes, primarily football and hockey players, due to several diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is caused from numerous blows to the head causing brain trauma.

The detection of such blows can only be discovered in research after the athlete has died. Some of the more prominent symptoms of CTE include depression, aggression and impulsive behavior.

Kristin Johnson told police she saw no signs of depression or anything that might have led to him harm himself.

Kristin Johnson told police that on that Sunday morning, she heard the garage door open, but assumed it was her daughter returning from a friend's house.

She also noticed a fresh pot of coffee had been made, so she went to the patio, where her husband liked to drink his coffee. He wasn't there.

She also noticed the couple's dogs had been fed, but saw the basement door was closed, which was unusual because the dogs routinely came and went downstairs freely.

Kristin Johnson then noticed a light on in the storage room and peeked in, but didn't see anything.

After going upstairs and calling out for Greg again, she considered it unusual that the storage-room light was on, so she went back, and that's when she found her husband, lying next to a tipped-over ladder.

Kristin Johnson told police that the couple had no marital difficulties, and just the previous night had gone out for dinner and returned home and settled next to a backyard bonfire.

She also said she didn't know anything about financial difficulties, though she acknowledged that was her husband's department.

The couple had their Rochester home on the market, but only to move closer to his job at a financial firm in Livonia, she said.

Kristin Johnson's father, Thomas Kotzian, told police on the scene that Johnson's job was "very high pressure."

Kotzian also told police that during dinner the night before, Johnson expressed some frustration about not getting any offers on the Rochester house, but said he wasn't forced to sell, adding, "It's not like someone has a gun to my head."

Kristin Johnson said she was unaware that her husband even owned a gun, calling him anti-gun. Records obtained by police show he purchased the handgun in January 2017.

One of the Johnsons' daughters had just returned home, shortly before Greg Johnson was found.

Johnson, a native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, played 14 seasons in the NHL, with the Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators, where he was a captain. He scored three goals for the Wings in the 1996 playoffs, which ended in the conference finals against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Wings traded Johnson to Pittsburgh in January 1997, 4½ months before Detroit went on to win its first Cup in 42 years.

“Greg wasn’t Mark Messier, he wasn’t Wayne Gretzky, but he was a captain in Nashville,” said Laidlaw, who got to know Johnson from his time in the 1990s living in Bloomfield Hills when he was representing then-Red Wing Dallas Drake.

Laidlaw signed Johnson, and worked with him the rest of his career. “People really respected him,” Laidlaw said.

Johnson also was a highly respected voice for the players during the tense lockout of 2004-05, even though he wasn’t a union player rep.

After the lockout season, Johnson played just one more year, forced to retire following the 2005-06 season because of a heart ailment discovered at Red Wings’ training camp in 2006.

Kristin Johnson said he wasn't taking medication for that condition.

Johnson's former Red Wings teammate Darren McCarty made reference to Johnson's death on a podcast last week, saying, "Great guy, he had some concussion problems, some injury problems ... and it was just too much for him, I guess.”

McCarty also referenced the lawsuits against the NHL involving CTE. The NHL and retired players reached a $19-million settlement in 2018, and other individual lawsuits have been filed and are pending.

It's not clear if Johnson was involved in any of those lawsuits, though Laidlaw told The News that he didn’t believe Johnson was a party to any legal proceedings.

Johnson was survived by Kristin and two daughters, Carson and Piper. He comes from a big hockey family, and also was survived by his sister and two brothers, both of whom played hockey, including Ryan, a longtime NHL player who works for the Vancouver Canucks as director of player development.

Funeral services still are pending, and are being handled by Wujek-Calcaterra & Sons, Inc., in Shelby Township.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984