According to plan
'Hockey guys' Johnston, Green continue to build Winterhawks
A self-described 'greenhorn,' Mike Johnston has made everything look easy through nearly three seasons of being a general manager and coach in the Western Hockey League.
His Portland Winterhawks, depleted of experienced talent when he took over in late 2008, improved by 48 points last season. Eight players were selected in the 2010 NHL draft, including Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter among the top five, giving Portland 11 players with big-league affiliation.
The Hawks won 50 games and tallied 103 points this season, eclipsing the coveted 100-point barrier for the first time since 1997-98, when Portland won the Memorial Cup - and another trip to junior hockey's promise land may be in the works. Five more Hawks are on the NHL draft radar, including three who are expected to go in the first round: Sven Bartschi, Joe Morrow and Ty Rattie.
The team's 50-player protected list has never been better. Last week, the club announced a seemingly ordinary signing of ninth-round bantam draft pick Chase De Leo, a Californian who had other options and therefore slipped to 192nd overall. Johnston, not prone to hype, says of De Leo: 'He is going to be an incredible player. Incredible. He could have been a first-rounder, easy. Easy. This guy's an amazing player.'
But rebuilding the Hawks hasn't been easy, says the 54-year-old Johnston, a teacher by education and a coaching guru by profession. Even with his vast experience, Johnston had never been part of junior hockey or been in the WHL. Backed by committed owner Bill Gallacher of Calgary, everything has fallen into place for Johnston and assistant GM/coach Travis Green.
When he came to Portland, Johnston consulted with notable coaches and friends Don Hay of Vancouver, Willie Dejardins of Medicine Hat and Danny Flynn of Moncton, New Brunswick, about how to run a successful junior program. But much of the Hawks' success stems from an article Johnston read in Hockey News in summer 2008, as Gallacher bought the Hawks and recruited Johnston and Green. The article was about Ken Holland, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, and how the NHL club was built into a powerhouse. A summation: Patience with homegrown players and a 'committed owner.'
A copy of the article still sits on Johnston's desk.
'We were really careful,' Johnston says, of how he guided the Hawks in 2008-09 and opted not to part with the likes of defenseman Travis Ehrhardt and goalie Kurtis Mucha. 'We had to get to know the league, and the scouting staff had to be revamped, which Garry Davidson did for us.
'For Travis and I, we were greenhorns. I still feel like I'm a novice general manager in this league. I'm trying to keep my head above water and get to a point where I feel like I know the league and the players. I knew I'd be challenged in the coaching area, but I'd be even more challenged in the general manager area.
'We stuck to the plan of being patient and developing our own kids, and that's the framework in how we're going to operate. We're going to run a classy, pro program and put our efforts into developing kids.'
On cue, Johnston felt more comfortable with not only his abilities, but also the roster after two good bantam drafts by previous management. The organization's handling of players and matters off the ice soon improved greatly, after things had unraveled under previous ownership. And the Hawks were able to recruit the likes of Johansen, Niederreiter and Taylor Aronson, in part by convincing parents that the team had put more emphasis on school, billets and accommodations.
'If we hadn't done a good job behind the scenes, if people hadn't heard Portland had changed and was a good destination where you could send your kid to be well taken care of,' Johnston says, 'we wouldn't have got those kids.'
As captain Brett Ponich puts it: 'The better we're feeling, the better we play, right?'
Top of the list
After what Johnston calls 'a very good' bantam draft, the Hawks were off and, er, skating. A team that had sunk to the bottom of WHL in 2007 and 2008 rose to elite status. The Portland roster that took the ice for the ongoing second-round WHL playoff series against Kelowna had only one player who wasn't listed or drafted by the team: Craig Cunningham, who was acquired in a trade.
'We're not naive to sit here and say it's always going to be roses,' says Green, 40, the former player component (WHL alum, 14-year NHL player) to Johnston's coaching experience behind the bench. 'We both know we've been really fortunate to be where we are. We didn't sit behind closed doors and say, 'We're going to be here or there' in three years.
'We never even talk about beyond next week. You put in the work, go through the process, and at end of the day things will take care of themselves. It's not a four-hour or 10-hour day for us, it's a 24/7 job for Mike and I. I'll send Mike a note sometimes at 2 o'clock in the morning, or vice versa. We're both passionate about what we do. It's what we are. Hockey guys.'
Johnston has been nominated for WHL executive of the year. It'd be one thing, had Johnston been nominated for coach of the year, but …
'Outside of coaches in the NHL, Mike Johnston, for me, would be right at the top of the list,' Green adds. 'You talk about a guy who understands the game, seen a lot, coached many years at the NHL level, a career coach. Just to be able to work with him daily and see his work ethic has been invaluable to me. You can't put a price tag on it.'
Born in Nova Scotia, Johnston got a teaching degree, but somebody offered him a coaching job first. He took it, and he hasn't looked back. He enjoyed collegiate success, including during five seasons at the University of New Brunswick. He became involved with Team Canada and served in various coaching capacities on national teams, including his work behind the bench as an assistant in the 1996 Winter Olympics. His NHL's tenures came as associate head coach with Vancouver (1999-2006) and Los Angeles (2006-08).
Johnston has done coaching seminars across the world, having co-authored the book, 'Simply The Best - Insights and Strategies From Great Hockey Coaches.' But he continues to learn. One time he asked Scotty Bowman, maybe the NHL's preeminent all-time coach, his secret to success. Bowman's response: 'Have a committed owner. A guy who's interested, making sure things are done the right way, not cutting corners.'
Still, the top guy on the hockey side has to do his part. Johnston's done it, and he credits part of his success to ongoing advice from former Hawk exec Ken Hodge.
'Mike's a great speaker -it's no wonder he gets asked to run coaching seminars all over the world, even with NHL coaches,' says Matt Bardsley, the Wilson High grad who stuck after the exodus of the previous Winterhawk regime. 'Everybody knows where they stand with Mike. He sells the program and stands behind the program. He's not a car salesman.
'As a coach, he's an unbelievable teacher, able to translate the game. I've seen him in rooms talking to players or prospects, and he's such a motivating speaker. It has a big impact on a kid.
'Mike has been incredible in every aspect -management, coaching, community, media, scouts, contacts with NHL people.'
Adds Ponich: 'With Mike, it's all about reputation. He's one of the most professional individuals I've ever met in how he treats people and players, how he coaches the team. He's never too high or too low.'
Coach in the NHL
Green, meanwhile, has made the oft-rough transition to coach from being an NHL player, learning the trait of patience from Johnston in dealing with players and coaching, and appreciating the intangible of work ethic. It has been his plan to be a coach since he turned 30.
'He's fully prepared to be a head coach in our league,' Johnston says, of Green. 'I also think he's poised to be a great assistant or associate coach in the NHL.'
Says Green: 'I want to coach at the NHL level one day. In saying that, I don't know if there's a rush to that. If you take steps too quickly, you can be in trouble. I'm learning a lot every day (with Johnston). It's very enjoyable.'
Johnston also has high praise for Bardsley and assistant coach Kyle Gustafson, another local from Gresham. He knows Bardsley wants to be a general manager someday, and he has worked to get Gustafson a spot with USA Hockey.
For Johnston, an NHL head coaching opportunity might arise. He had inquiries about a couple NHL associate jobs after last season, but he kept his promise to Gallacher to stay with the Hawks for three years at least.
What if he's offered an NHL head coaching job?
'That's always been a goal of mine,' he says. 'It's been a goal of mine to win a Stanley Cup. Every kid in Canada wants to do that. If I do it as a head coach or in management, that's still my goal.
'But, back to being a head coach (in juniors), I can have an impact on our organization and destiny as a team. I've enjoyed it so much, I haven't even thought about (the NHL).'