Winterhawks a winner with this backup plan


Hard-working Travis Green shows he was ready to be a successful head coach

When general manager/coach Mike Johnston was suspended by the Western Hockey League on Nov. 28 for the remainder of the season, followers of the Portland Winterhawks took a collective gulp of air.

The Hawks were 20-4-1-0 and riding high as a WHL powerhouse. Would their bid for a WHL championship and Memorial Cup berth fall flat without their leader?

The answer has been a resounding no.

Portland is 31-6-0-2 under Johnston’s replacement, assistant coach/assistant GM Travis Green, for a league-best 51-10-1-2 heading into Wednesday’s game against Edmonton. The Winterhawks clearly are the team to beat when the playoffs open next month.

It’s a credit to both Johnston, whose reconstruction of a dying franchise since taking over in 2008 has been little short of incredible, and to Green, under whom the Hawks haven’t skipped a beat.

Portland couldn’t have had a better man waiting in the wings than Green, 42, a 14-year NHL veteran as a player who has been with Johnston since day one of their time with the Hawks.

“Travis gets a lot of credit,” says Johnston, suspended for player violations that have been well-chronicled in recent months but as yet not fully explained by the WHL office in terms of the severity of punishment. “Our staff has been together 4 1/2 years, and we’re pretty well in synch with how we run things.

“At the same time, to take over a team at midstream — even though you have a good team —┬áit’s a challenge. You have to steer the ship when things get tough. As an assistant coach, you never have to do that. You can make recommendations but don’t have to live with the consequences.

“There’s no question Travis has done a great job, and I knew he would. There was no hesitation on our behalf to put him in that role. We knew 100 percent he was ready.”

Green had served as head coach in a handful of games over the previous four seasons when Johnston was gone on scouting missions, but this was different.

“You always knew Mike would be back,” Green says. “This time, in the back of my mind, I thought it would be short-term, too, that (the suspension) would get shortened. But it hasn’t been.”

When Green learned of Johnston’s suspension, “I was shocked,” he says.

The WHL sanctions “exceeded anything we imagined by 500 percent,” Green says. “It’s never the way you would envision getting a head coaching position. Normally when you do, you have lots of time to prepare. I was nervous, especially the first few games. My mind was racing as far as what needed to be done.”

Johnston had coached Green on two Canadian squads in the world championships. When Johnston got the Portland job, one of the first players he spoke with about an assistant’s position was Green.

“Some players strike you as guys who might make pretty good coaches,” Johnston says. “Travis always did more than just play the game.”

The timing was perfect. Green had retired as a player in 2007 and was ready to embark on a coaching career. He signed on with Portland, a great move for both parties.

“Mike has been a mentor for me since I came in,” Green says. “Coaching is not an easy thing to do. You can be a smart hockey guy, but getting your point across to 20 individuals in a short time and being organized, that’s a big job to do.

“Being with Mike, it’s been like 10 years training on the job. He’s such a good coach and amazing teacher, both for the players and me. Our team wouldn’t have been able to go through something like this without what Mike has done in previous years.”

The first two or three games, Green allows, “you get a little tongue-tied at times. But it didn’t take long to get comfortable because of what Mike has taught us. Preparation meeting opportunity equals success. That’s a motto I’ve used real heavily. When you are prepared, things are a lot easier.”

A strong nucleus of leadership from Portland’s veteran players has helped Green keep the team on course.

“We wouldn’t be in this position without our veteran group,” Green says. “It has helped us 100 percent. As much as Mike has prepared us and made our culture, our leaders have learned how to win. They believe in themselves. They’ve been a huge part of it.

“When everything happened, I leaned on our older guys, and they’ve responded. Our team has played remarkably well, even when we were short-staffed over the Christmas break (because of players participating in the world juniors).”

Green has made very few changes philosophically in Johnston’s absence.

“It was always in the back of my mind, ‘You’re not changing anything,’ “ he says. “It’s going to be the same message, different voice. But I’m not Mike. We’re not the same person in many ways.”

When Johnston and Green first joined forces in 2008, “there were a lot of differences. I’m a pretty emotional guy. I’d never had much patience before. Those two things I’ve learned — to not fly off the handle and to have some patience.”

“But we think a lot alike with how we approach the game, how we think the game needs to be played,” Green says. “I’m more fiery than Mike, but I’ve toned it down the last 4 1/2 years, and it’s for the good.”

“Travis is a little more in your face than Mike,” star winger Ty Rattie says. “Mike is a little more laid-back. Travis lets you know when you’re doing something wrong, but that’s been good.”

If Green was a bit uneasy assuming the head-coaching reins, his players didn’t feel the same way.

“ ‘Greener’ has been learning from Mike the last few years,” Rattie says. “When Mike had to leave, there was really no change in our game — just a different guy running the bench.

“Greener has done a heck of a job coming into a difficult situation, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s more than capable of being a head coach. We have a lot of confidence in him. We weren’t really too worried when he came in. We knew he’d do a good job, and he has.”

Johnston has watched with pride as Green has grown as a coach.

“As a player, Travis had an outstanding work ethic,” he says. “He’s a very competitive person who was always working at his game, thinking about the team game. Same thing as a coach. He never lets it drop.

“There were nights our first year when he would call me at 10 or 11 about a player we should add, or about something we should do different. I was amazed at how hard he worked at the game and how thorough he was when he worked with the kids. You could see he has a great rapport with the athletes. He could demonstrate stuff on the ice, work out with them. That was a huge asset for me as a coach to have somebody like that on my staff.”

While Green has enjoyed taking on the challenge of being a head coach, his feelings for Johnston’s plight have tempered its joy.

“I’ve never met a guy more devoted to his job in my 24 years in the WHL and NHL,” Green says. “Mike lives and breathes it. For me, it’s really sad. I feel terrible for him.”

It’s been made even more difficult in that Green’s family is not in Portland with him. For the last two years, wife Sheree and their three children — Jordyn, 13, Blake, 9, and Brody, 4 — have been in Irvine, Calif. Brody is autistic, and the special care required for Brody in Southern California has been necessary for his development.

“I miss them a lot,” he says. “I’m consumed by my job, but it’s not been easy being away from them.”

Green and Johnston remain close friends as well as working partners. They continue to speak via telephone nearly every day.

“Mike understands it would be hard if he was telling me what to do,” Green says. “We talk about the team. I ask for his suggestions a lot, but Mike knows at the end of the day, I have to make split decisions.

“I value what he has done for me. He has let me be my own coach. And that’s the mark of a great organization. Our owner, Bill Gallacher, hired good people, and he lets them do their job. That’s the ultimate situation you can have.”

Green’s on-the-spot performance after Johnston’s suspension has illuminated his talent for the coaching profession. Other teams have taken notice. I’m guessing this will be his last season with the Hawks. He’ll be offered either a head coaching position by another WHL club, or as an assistant in the NHL.

“Everyone who coaches is eager to be a head guy,” he says. “I’ve always said it’s not a race to be a (head) coach, because you have to be in the right situation. I’m really happy here, but do I have goals and aspirations? For sure.

“Ultimately, I want to be a coach at the NHL level. Everyone who coaches (hockey), that’s his long-term goal. I enjoy the management side of it, too. I’ve been fortunate to be involved on both sides. I like them both. At the end of every season, I sit back and ponder my future. But there’s never been any place I’d rather be than here.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers