Several Winterhawks moving on, but not their coach

Johnston, assistants agree to four-year extension with Portland
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Winterhawk fans packed the Rose Garden for the Western Hockey League finals and brought their intensity to the series.

The Winterhawks are done for this season, on vacation a couple of weeks earlier than they'd planned.

The Kootenay Ice will be moving on to the Memorial Cup as the Western Hockey's League representative by virtue of their WHL finals elimination of Portland.

Some top talent will be returning to the Hawks, including rookie sensation Sven Bartschi, forwards Brad Ross and Ty Rattie, defensemen Joe Morrow and Troy Rutkowski and goaltender Mac Carruth.

The most important person who will be back, though, is Mike Johnston.

Portland's general manager/head coach - the chief architect of the Winterhawks' resurrection over the past three years - has agreed to a four-year contract extension.

'We've had a handshake on it for a little while,' Portland president Doug Piper said Friday night after the Hawks' 4-1 loss to Kootenay at the Rose Garden. 'I'm not sure the actual contract has been signed, but we're giving Mike and his assistants (Travis Green and Kyle Gustason) all four-year extensions.

'This is a team you don't want to screw around with. You want to build on it. I can't imagine more growth, more of a turnaround than what we've accomplished.'

When Johnston, 54, arrived in Portland early in the 2008-09, the franchise was in shambles, coming off a league-worst 11-58-2-1 season, with a dwindling fan base and little imprint on the city's sporting landscape.

'It was the most broken franchise I've ever seen,' Piper said.

Under Johnston's guidance, the Hawks have gone from 19 regular-season victories his first season to 44 and a second-round playoff berth last season to 50 and a spot in the WHL finals this season.

Johnston came to the Hawks after working the previous two seasons as associate head coach of the NHL Los Angeles Kings. He'd served the same post for seven seasons in Vancouver and has five seasons experience with Team Canada, including one year as its head coach.

Last summer, a pair of NHL assistant coaching positions were offered, but Johnston wasn't taking. There would be NHL interest in him again this offseason, but he is staying put.

'The original plan was to come in for three years and get the franchise up and running and moving ahead, but I've enjoyed it a lot, and so has the staff,' Johnston said. 'We're trying to make sure the staff and everybody is here for awhile.'

For an NHL offer to entice him, Johnston said, 'It would have to be something really out of the ordinary. It has been a great experience in Portland. I enjoy working with the young guys.'

Three years ago, the Winterhawks were hardly a blip on the WHL map. Today, said Mark Kelley, director of amateur scouting for the Chicago Blackhawks, 'It's like a model franchise.'

Vancouver Giants coach Don Hay - a head coach for two seasons in the NHL and a three-time Memorial Cup winner out of the WHL - has great respect for Johnston's impact in Portland.

'The job that Mike has done with that team - recruiting, scouting, and coaching - has been impressive,' Hay said. 'Look at the sellout crowds they've been having. People want to come out and see a good product, and the Winterhawks have a real good product on the ice right now.

'The organization has done a great job scouting, identifying players, recruiting players and developing players. A couple of years ago, nobody thought Ryan Johansen would be the player he is today. That's a real credit to the organization.'

Johansen was the fourth pick (to Columbus) in last June's NHL draft, and he probably played his final WHL game Friday night. So did teammate Nino Niederreiter, taken fifth by the New York Islanders in the same draft. Both forwards are likely to stick at the top level next season.

For Johansen, a seventh-round pick in the 2007 Bantam draft, it has been about development with the Hawks.

'I was just sitting at my house a week ago thinking about that - if it would have made a difference had I stayed in the NHL (this season),' he said, his voice choking with emotion. 'I think I got better by staying here, really.

'I know how much I've improved over the course of this year, how much I've learned. It's pretty much NHL coaching we have here, it really is. I'm so thankful for that, the opportunities I've had.'

Niederreiter, also fighting through tears, expressed similar gratitude to Johnston and his staff.

'I've had an amazing time here,' the Swiss native said. 'I'm so happy I got with an organization like the Portland Winterhawks. I think they've made me a future pro.'

Niederreiter also made a comment that surprised me. He wasn't in town when the Hawks hit rock bottom three years ago, but he is very aware of the franchise's resurgence.

'I think,' he said through sniffles, 'we've finally got some respect back from Portland.'

There's little doubt about that. Witness the thousands who remained at their seats at game's end Friday night, giving the Hawks a well-deserved final standing ovation for several minutes.

'The way the city has come together and the fans have come out to watch us ... it's truly been the time of our lives,' Johansen said.

There's a reason why Kootenay has won 14 of its last 15 playoff games. The Ice were a better team than the Hawks, though not by much. Two of their victories came in overtime. A bounce here and there and the outcome could have been different.

In Friday's Game 5, Portland's Tyler Wotherspoon scored 2:34 into the game. There were a couple of other golden opportunities early, but the Hawks didn't put them into the net. Kootenay wound up holding them scoreless over the final 57 minutes.

'That's the tale of the series - we missed on a couple of chances we should have buried,' Johnston said.

The fans came out in droves during Portland's playoff run.

'It's going to have a ripple effect to next year, because we have a lot of young guys in that locker room who are going to be back,' Johnston said.

So is the coach. For the Hawks and their followers, that's the best news of all.