COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN
Winterhawks head coach/GM Mike Johnston encourages his players on Tuesday night at Westman Place.
The last game of the Portland Winterhawks' recent road trip didn't just take head coach/general manager Mike Johnston a long way east. It also took him a long way back in time.
The Winterhawks head coach/general manager, a former captain of the Brandon University Bobcats hockey team, set foot in the Wheat City for the first time in more than a decade when his Western Hockey League club downed the Brandon Wheat Kings 4-2 on Tuesday at Westman place.
Johnston was the general manager and associate coach of the Canadian national men's team at the time, working with head coach Andy Murray of Souris, who would go on to a long stint as an NHL head coach.
"Andy and I were both back here in '97 or '98, that was my last time back," Johnston recalled before the game on Tuesday. "And then it was a long time before that, when I was at university playing here. So it's kinda nice (to be back)."
Johnston has added a lot to his coaching resume since that time. He has been the head coach of the national team and had associate coaching gigs in the National Hockey League with the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks.
Perhaps his most impressive feat, though, is one that is taking place right now as one of the architects of a remarkable rebuilding effort with the Winterhawks. In October 2008, Johnston was hired by new owner Bill Gallacher to head a Winterhawks team that had devolved from one of the WHL's flagship franchises to a doormat that had totalled only 62 points in the previous two seasons and was off to a 2-12 start.
The first thing done by the new management group, which also included former Bobcat and Souris native Garry Davidson as the director of player personnel, was to move out the team's 20-year-olds and build around youth. At the same time, they put a new emphasis on off-ice professionalism.
"We tried to make sure even behind the scenes that if you're looking at a player coming or a parent sending a kid to our team, that at least we knew they were comfortable and (saying) 'This is a good environment for my son,' type of thing," Johnston said.
Although the club recorded only 43 points in 2008-09, the changes began to show immediately and really took hold last season when Portland shot up to 91 points.
Johnston said he shares the credit with Ken Hodge and his staff under the previous regime, who assembled young talent but never got the support they needed from ownership to turn that potential into a winner.
"Ken Hodge and his group had a good '92 draft (players born in 1992)," Johnston said. "When I came here they were 16-year-olds on our roster so we decided, 'Well, we're going to keep them, we'll play them, we'll try to protect them a little bit.' But they became the foundation of our team.
"Then we were fortunate to be able to recruit (Ryan) Johansen and drafted (Nino) Niederreiter."
Now, with Johansen and Niederreiter both top-five picks in the NHL entry draft and bona fide WHL stars, plus impressive young talent from the ensuing two draft classes, the league-leading Winterhawks (19-3-0-1) have become the team to beat in the WHL, not just this season, but perhaps for years to come.
It's a rebuilding project Johnston hopes will return the franchise to its glory days and recapture the imagination of Portland hockey fans in the process.
"It's coming, but not to the degree it ever was in the heyday, not even close, but all you can do is try to have an entertaining team, a competitive team, and we feel like we're building that," he said.
"We should have a competitive team for several years now and with that hopefully fans will start to come back because it's a good product and they enjoy hockey."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 18, 2010 B1