With some time to kill before the Portland Winterhawks’ game against the Brandon Wheat Kings on Friday, Mike Johnston went back to school.
The Winterhawks had a day off in the Wheat City before the first game of their East Division road trip and the team’s head coach and general manager paid a visit to his alma mater, Brandon University.
The former captain of the defunct Bobcats hockey team has amassed an extensive coaching resume, including stints in the NHL and with Canada’s national team, but he said his philosophy still reflects his BU origins.
“Certainly when I was here in Brandon, Andy Murray (who coached the Bobcats at the time) had a big influence on me and subsequent to that I’ve coached with him in world championships (and) Olympics with the national team program, so we’ve had an opportunity to work together over the years and he’s had a big impact,” Johnston said. “He’s a great coach and he’s been a mentor to a lot of guys.”
Coaching in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference, Johnston often crosses paths with fellow alumni of that Bobcat program. Garry Davidson, who played at BU prior to Johnston, is now the general manager of the Everett Silvertips after previously being Johnston’s right-hand man as the Winterhawks’ director of player personnel. Meanwhile, Enio Sacilotto, another former Bobcat of that era, is an assistant coach with the Victoria Royals.
“Brandon University produced a lot of good players and eventual coaches,” said Johnston, who was a member of the Bobcats team that played in the 1981 national championship and was ranked No.1 during that season.
“When I came out here to play in the program, they were a top-notch program. … This was a huge move for me to go from Nova Scotia as a younger guy and move out west, not know anybody, and any time you do that I think it impacts you a lot. The first people you meet, the friends you make, they become close friends and so there’s quite a few people like Garry Davidson, who was around here — at the time he was coaching the Travellers (Brandon’s old Manitoba Junior Hockey League team) — and who I hired right away when I got the job (in Portland).”
Johnston has continued to refine his approach to coaching since his BU days. He watched and learned from the likes Clare Drake, Ken Hitchcock, George Kingston and Perry Pearn while he was coaching at Camrose College in Alberta, and he said the process continues today. Over the summer he enrolled in some coaching clinics that he would normally present at, simply to try and pick up a few tips that might work in Portland.
Whatever he’s doing has worked as the Winterhawks have made the WHL final in each of the past two seasons and are considered one of the top contenders in the Western Conference again this season.
“I look at the franchises that have been great franchises in the league — and I even look up here in front of us (at Westman Place) at all the banners that the Wheat Kings have won in sequence over the years — the Vancouver Giants, the Medicine Hat Tigers,” he said. “Certainly the Portland Winterhawks were one of those teams and we wanted to try and rebuild the franchise to be recognized as a contender every year. That’s what we’d like to be.”