PHILADELPHIA – It was only a matter of time before Mike Johnston was back in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins presented the opportunity to return to the league as a head coach and it was an offer too good to refuse.
Johnston, who has been the head coach and general manager of the Portland Winterhawks since 2008, had previously been an associate coach with the L.A. Kings before heading to the Western Hockey League.
Johnston, 57, is a career coach, having taken a position as head coach at Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta as his first job out of school. Unable to find a job after graduating with a degree in education, he was able to parlay his love of teaching to hockey. Now, coaching hockey is the only vocation he’s ever known.
Like many of his teams – in Camrose, at the University of New Brunswick and in Portland – Johnston is adept at turning around the fortunes of struggling franchises.
“I coached for five years at UNB and they had won one game in the year before I was hired there and two games before that so it seems like those types of jobs are the ones I step into at times,” said Johnston during an interview in May. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s nice to set the stage for a program.”
He’ll have his work cut out for him in Pittsburgh trying to right a problem team that has underachieved despite having some of the NHL’s best players. In Johnston, the Penguins will find someone who is very detail oriented and someone who wants to develop a strong culture to breed success.
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In a story during this season’s WHL playoffs, Winterhawks director of hockey operations Matt Bardsley told a story about how one week after losing in the Memorial Cup final, Johnston was already talking to his staff about how to be better for next season.
“Some people were saying, but it was only one game – we just happened to lose one game – we were basically one of the best,” said Bardsley in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “No. We have to be better, but that’s Mike for you, he knows you can always be better.”
One of the first things Johnston did in Portland was to make sure all the off-ice incidentals like education, medical and billeting were taken care of first before tackling the team’s on-ice issues.
“It wasn't a lot about hockey – it was more about the environment," said Johnston. "I knew if we could get the environment tidied up we had a chance to do things hockey-wise because we had good hockey people, but the environment wasn't good.”
If his first press conference with the NHL media is any indication, he’ll stay true to what has worked for him in the past.
"That's important in any line of work, that the organization has an identity," said Johnston in a press conference on Wednesday. "There are core things that you will be able to see and you're going to say, 'This is how the Pittsburgh Penguins play.' And that's what I've been able to build in the past.
"Once you build that template, then you maneuver pieces around within the template, but it is a process."
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The question now becomes whether Johnston’s success at the junior level will translate to the NHL level. It’s one thing to instruct raw teenagers playing for a contract or hoping to catch the eye of a scout, and another when dealing with a group of men – including superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – who are making millions. Coaches like newly crowned Jack Adams Trophy winner Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils head coach Peter DeBoer have been able to successfully transition from junior hockey straight to the NHL, though there are others like Dale Hunter and Bob Boughner who didn’t.
It will help Johnson already having experience at the NHL level – eight years as an assistant/associate coach with both the Vancouver Canucks and Kings.
In the Western Hockey League, Johnston was a polarizing figure. To fans in Portland, he was revered for having saved their franchise and keeping junior hockey in the city. To those outside, Johnston was seen as a cheater and a coach who found success through underhanded means.
In 2012, the WHL suspended Johnston for almost the entire season after the league found the Winterhawks guilty of providing their players impermissible benefits. According to the team, they were caught paying for plane tickets for parents to travel to games, summer training programs and a cell phone for their team captain. As a result the team was fined $200,000 and they lost their first-round picks in the WHL bantam draft from 2014-17.
"On the player benefits side, we made an error in the way we did things," said Johnston on Wednesday. "Subsequently, it had nothing to do with coaching, but since I held a general manager (and) coach position, that impacted the coaching side."