For Tri-City coach, Portland still home
The Portland Winterhawks were riding back from a road game just before the 1993 Christmas break. Coach Brent Peterson called his team captain to the front of the bus and gave 20-year-old Mike Williamson something to think about.
"He said: 'I don't want to do this by myself too much longer. I want to have an assistant coach whether it's next year or the year after. I want you to think about it a little bit,'" Williamson recalls.
At the time, Williamson wanted to continue playing hockey. But after attending training camp with the Buffalo Sabres as a free agent, Williamson realized his playing future, if he had one, would involve bouncing around the minor leagues.
Instead, he used a scholarship to attend the University of Portland. And a few months after playing his last game for the Winterhawks — encouraged by longtime Winterhawks coach Ken Hodge, who was then the general manager — Williamson was Peterson's assistant coach.
Nearly a quarter century later, Williamson remains passionate about coaching. On Saturday, he returns to Moda Center with the Tri-City Americans, the third Western Hockey League club Williamson has guided as head coach. His resume includes 7 1/2 seasons as the Winterhawks head coach and five years guiding the Calgary Hitmen. And, with 545 regular-season wins through last week, he is one of only seven coaches to reach 500 WHL wins (a list topped by Hodge's 742).
Games in Portland remain special for Williamson, 44, though not the emotional event they were when his Calgary teams visited the Winterhawks only every other season.
"I was in Portland for so long, and it was such a big part of my life. It was really hard at first (to come back)," Williamson said.
Portland is more than a hockey town for Williamson. He met and married his wife, Michelle, here. Their children, 13-year-old daughter Leeah and 10-year-old son Nicolas, were born in Portland. Michelle's parents still live in the area.
"Portland still feels like home. We miss it," Williamson says. "We enjoy going back and seeing people and seeing the green. Don't miss the traffic, though."
He is happy in the Tri-Cities, working for a tight-knit organization that reminds him of the family feel the Winterhawks had during his tenure.
"It's a smaller staff," he says. "In Calgary, we had a bit more resources. Here it's more like it was in Portland when I was first there. Mom and pop and a smaller number of people doing a lot of different things, but a really close group of staff and players."
When Williamson started assisting Peterson, he was coaching players who had been his teammate only months earlier.
"That was tough. I was going to school. My family was essentially the players on the team, and I couldn't go hang out with them. I had to get some separation," he recalls. "I was probably more homesick that year than I ever was away from home playing."
At first, Williamson saw coaching as a bridge to a career outside of hockey. Instead, he spent 14 seasons behind the Winterhawks bench, 7 1/2 of them as head coach beginning midway through the 1999-2000 season. His tenure — which included a run to the WHL finals in his first season as head coach — ended after the Hawks missed the playoffs in 2007.
Williamson thought he had a contract agreement for the 2007-08 season, but the then-owners claimed negotiations fell apart and fired him.
Williamson remains unhappy about the way his Winterhawk days ended. But even as he works to defeat them on the ice, he says he is happy for the success of friends such as associate coach Kyle Gustafson and assistant general manager Matt Bardsley, and glad WHL hockey continues to thrive in Portland.
"To this day, I have good relationships with the people who are there. They've done a good job. It's great to see that the franchise is where it's at," Williamson says. "Because when I was finishing up and when I was done, it wasn't in a very good spot and didn't look like the future was too promising."
Without a team to coach in 2007-08, Williamson remained in Portland and worked as operations manager for the silkscreen and embroidery company Northwest Sleeveware. If not for the economic downturn of 2009, Williamson might still be in the business world.
"If it was the reverse of that and the company was growing and there were different opportunities there, I don't know if I would have up and moved the family and gone back (into coaching)," Williamson says.
It was certainly a successful move. In 2009-10, Williamson took over as Calgary's head coach and guided the Hitmen to the WHL championship.
Now Williamson is working to build something special in Kennewick, Washington. The Americans improved their record in each of Williamson's first three seasons and last year finished third in the U.S. Division, one spot ahead of Portland, then lost to league champion Seattle in the playoffs.
Four Americans were selected in the 2017 NHL draft. Michael Rasumssen was taken ninth overall by Detroit. Defenseman Juuso Valimaki went 16th to Calgary. Morgan Geekie was selected in the third round by Carolina and Kyle Olson in the fourth round by Anaheim.
Those four are back with Tri-City along with defenseman Dylan Coghlan, who signed an entry-level deal with the Vegas Golden Knights.
The NHL-caliber talent was missing in the Ams' lineup when Williamson took over. Now they can match the Winterhawks' high-end talent.
"Our scouts did a really good job of finding some players through the (bantam) draft, and we were able to work with them for a few years and then everyone was rewarded with a nice day at the draft in Chicago," Williamson says. "We're excited about our team. It's a long way to the finish line, but we've got a good group of young men that work hard and have high expectations."
The competitive challenge, the relationships and the opportunity to steer young players to successful futures — in hockey and in life — keep Williamson enjoying the coaching ride.
"The bus trips aren't getting any shorter. It seems like once you hit 40 the body doesn't adapt to those seats quite as well," he says. "But I still really enjoy it. I love coming to the rink. We have a great group of guys. Tri-Cities is a wonderful place to have a family and live and coach."