From the ice rinks of Ontario to the “toxic” Ibrox cauldron, Alistair Johnston took the road less travelled to his derby debut.

Still, being raised in a household with plenty heritage on these isles, it’s not like the right-back was oblivious to what awaited him in Govan.

He certainly knew enough to gently suggest to his mother that perhaps she wait until Rangers go to Celtic Park before sampling the fixture herself.

She needn’t have worried about her boy, right enough. He handled his first outing in green and white with the fearlessness of a young man who grew up learning how not to be pushed around. More on that, later.

“On a personal level it was super-exciting just to be out there,” Johnston said, speaking to promote the new 2022/23 SPFL Match Attax collection. “I got to enjoy that atmosphere, as toxic as it was. It was a lot of fun to play in.

“I grew up in a UK household. My mum’s from Northern Ireland and my dad’s side is Scottish and English. Growing up I was always watching Premier League, Champions League. And, of course, a match like this is one you put on when it’s on the telly.  

READ MORE: Alistair Johnston says no chance Celtic succumb to complacency

“I knew quite a bit about this match-up going into it. I also showed my missus the one we played at home last year, Cal (McGregor) had the mask on and they won 3-0. 

“I showed her the light show, You’ll Never Walk Alone and all of that. She was sitting there going: ‘This is unbelievable!’ 

“It’s hard to compare to American sports. The passion is so deep-rooted, it’s in you from a child. It’s something so unique. 

“I kind of knew what I was getting myself into.  It’s funny, my mum was saying she wished she could have been there. I was like: ‘You know what, I’m not sure you’d want to have been at that one. I’m not sure I would let you go to that one. Maybe the next one at home!’” 

Ibrox may have been deemed too much, too soon for Mrs Johnston to attend, but her son owes plenty to his formative years in feeling so comfortable in the most uncomfortable of environments.

Specifically, braving the rough and tumble of ice hockey.

“It’s hilarious,” the Canadian laughs. “There’s pretty much no other sport, or facet of life, where you’re allowed to try and take a guy’s head off."

Now, it’s doubtful Johnston had the south side of Glasgow in mind when pulling on the pads for the Aurora Tigers back home, but learning to look after yourself at a young age certainly helps when arriving in one of world football’s most hostile situations. From kick-off, it was obvious the 24-year-old wasn’t fazed by the physicality, something that has left players vastly more experienced frozen in a state of shock, and much of that can be attributed to where he’s come from.

Of course, there’s also his view on the nuances of being a defender, not an attacker, when it comes to such occasions.

“It’s different being a defender as well compared to an attacking player where you are expected to go out there and create something and find a groove,” Johnston explained. “As a defender I can get into a game just by smashing someone, right up the back!

“It’s kind of in my upbringing as a Canadian where we played ice hockey half the year and the summer is football. It’s in our DNA to be physical and to work hard.

“For me as a defender when you see that kind of crowd and that energy, there is nothing I want to do more than put a ball in the channel and absolutely get into a tackle. You can almost feed off that as a defender.

“It’s a little different obviously if you are an attacking player. For me it’s just as perfect environment to get acclimated and get into a match. I definitely enjoyed it a little bit more than most.”

READ MORE: Johnston calls for consistency after Celtic penalty snub vs Rangers

Listening to him speak, it’s obvious his Celtic team-mates, much like his mum, needn’t have concerned themselves their new colleagues’ readiness for Ibrox, but Johnston says they’re such a tight-knit group that everyone made a point of having a word in his ear anyway.

Cameron Carter-Vickers’ pep talk proved especially prescient, given how an error from Joe Hart appeared to swing proceedings in Rangers’ favour.

“Everyone brought me aside,” Johnston recalled. “Carter-Vickers – a good American lad! – he was saying: ‘It’s was going to be something you haven’t really experienced, it’s going to be a cauldron, especially if we make a couple of mistakes and let them get into it, a couple of corners or set-pieces and we let momentum swing, even if it doesn’t feel like they are doing much it can get the crowd into it and all of a sudden the game can change.

“Just be ready for that, understand that it doesn’t matter what you do, they are going to be booing you the entire time and cussing you out. Just get ready for it. And at the end of the day just enjoy it, because you will’.

“At the end of the day it’s all just football. If you can drown that noise out and just use it almost as fuel, which I think a lot of us can, that’s where the professional athlete is now. The mental aspect of it is so important.

“A lot of us have got very good at using that toxicity I guess, you could say, to our benefit. I like that, it fuels you, it gets you up for the game. And if you can’t get up for a match like that you have bigger issues. The guys were all great with me, they set me up perfectly and I felt completely comfortable to just go out there and play my game.”

Alistair Johnston helped launch the new 2022/23 SPFL Match Attax Collection, on sale now in Scottish retailers and via