Mike Johnston's presence felt despite his absence as he begins year-long WHL suspension

In the first game since the Western Hockey League issued severe sanctions against the Portland Winterhawks, one moment brought joy at a time of confusion, anger and resentment toward the league.

As the starting lineups were read before Friday's game at the Rose Garden, Mike Johnston, whose year-long suspension has made him the face of the organization's penalties, received a standing ovation when Portland announced him as the head coach and general manager.

Travis Green, now inheriting those duties in Johnston's absence, swelled with emotions as he listened to the roar from the 6,671 in attendance.

“It was a touching moment,” he said with a quiet smile. “There's always little moments you remember throughout your career, and that's one (Johnston) will remember and I know I'll remember.”

On the ice, in the face of unprecedented penalties, the Hawks didn't sway from the formula that's brought them so much success so far this season. With more than 50 shots and a solid effort in net, Portland defeated the Seattle Thunderbirds 5-2. And while the win was somewhat soothing, Johnston's presence was missed.

“Obviously, tonight seemed a bit different than nights in the past when (assistant coach) Kyle (Gustafson) and I were on the bench when Mike's left the team,” Green said. “But it was nice. I thought it was a good game.”

The organization's decision to announce Johnston's name was a surprise to the coaches and players, who applauded with fans for nearly a minute before Green's name was then announced as the acting coach and general manager.

“It was almost overwhelming,” said Portland center Taylor Peters, who had a goal and assist. “It just shows the support we have from the Portland fans. They're steadfast and loyal.”

It was also motivation for a team that's felt, admittedly, vilified after the WHL revoked several future draft picks, suspended Johnston and fined the club $200,000 for player benefits — mostly airline flights for parents to visit Portland — on Wednesday.

The Winterhawkws, who have a WHL-best 21-4-1-0 record, skated with anger, especially early, and that resulted in two fights and a combined 12 power plays and 74 penalty minutes.

“We let our emotions get the better of us a few times,” said Green, adding that it “could be” a byproduct of everything that's occurred from the league office. “Our guys wanted to play hard tonight.”

After two furry-filled periods, Portland was clinging to a 2-1 lead against a team it had swept by a combined score of 20-5 in their previous three meetings. At a time when Johnston has been the one to focus on the team's energy, the new leaders took action.

Even with different locker room dynamics, Green said the team had a good talk before the third period and Johnston's voice still lingered.

“It's nice that we have guys, like (captain) Troy (Rutkowski) and I, who've been in the league and on this team for so long that we can impart Mike's knowledge that we've gained on to these young guys,” Peters said.

The Hawks then scored three goals in the final period to secure the victory over the T-Birds (12-13-1-0). Oliver Bjorkstrand, Taylor Leier, Seth Jones and Ty Rattie each matched Peters with a goal apiece.

Goalie Mac Carruth stopped 31 of 33 shots and only allowed one goal during seven Seattle power plays.

When it was over, Green said the first person he was going to call was Johnston, who is not allowed to attend any more games this season. The players said they feel galvanized by this ordeal and that they've tried to rally since Johnston's final words to the team earlier this week.

“He told us exactly what had happened,” Peters said. “Our mission stays the same, and you can see that by how we played tonight.”

After the game, with the team preparing to play Saturday night at Everett, Green was asked about the red “free Mike J” shirts that were being sold inside the arena by the Portland Winterhawks booster club, which has no affiliation with the organization.

“I saw one when we came off,” he said. “I had a nice chuckle.”

They were all over the arena on Friday — a form of protest against the league for punishments many believe are too extreme.

Don't be surprised if Green takes part.

“I don't have one yet," he said, "but I might have to get one.”

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