Mike Johnston's coaching journey, from Australian outback to Stanley Cup challenge in Pittsburgh

Mike Johnston's coaching journey, from Australian outback to Stanley Cup challenge in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — The man hired to put the Pittsburgh Penguins over the top began his career Down Under.

Mike Johnston was 22. He had studied to be a phys ed teacher, but jobs were scarce. He had played in Austria and Switzerland with Brandon University, a school in Manitoba, so he figured he would phone the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and get addresses for teams overseas. Why not follow up and see if he could play some pro hockey?

A woman took his request, put him on hold and gave him a couple addresses. There was one problem.

“I don’t want Australia,” Johnston told her. “I want Austria.”

“Oh, Austria .”

She put him on hold again and returned with what he wanted. But he took the Australian addresses, anyway. He didn’t know Aussies played hockey.

Out went the letters. Back came a response. A six-team pro league was forming in Australia, and a guy there was building a program and rink. It was April, but because summer in North America is winter there, the season was about to start.

Mike Johnston had previous NHL stints as an associate coach in Los Angeles and Vancouver. (Getty)
Mike Johnston had previous NHL stints as an associate coach in Los Angeles and Vancouver. (Getty)

Johnston went down with a buddy, Ray Robertson, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick who didn’t land a contract. They lived on the beach in Narrabeen. They played a season in Newcastle and, after the rink was built, another in Sydney. They won a championship.

They didn't just play. They coached – the pro team, the junior team, youth teams. Johnston was the head coach.

“The interesting thing was, in Australia, I was a coach, and nobody knew anything about hockey, really,” Johnston said. “So I could do anything I wanted. No matter what drill I ran or what I did, I could do anything. … It gave me a chance to coach and just do whatever.”

Johnston came home to Canada, went on to college and university hockey, ran in the same circles as coaches like Ken Hitchcock and Mike Babcock. He earned a master’s in coaching science. He co-authored two books on coaching.

He coached in world juniors, world championships and an Olympics. He became associate coach for two NHL teams, the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings, and head coach and general manager of a major junior team, the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks.

Now, after 35 years of work, at 57 years of age, he has his first NHL head coaching job. He is coaching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“People say, ‘Well, you finally got to where you wanted to go,’ ” said Johnston this week in his office at Consol Energy Center. “I never, ever really viewed it that way.”

Johnston did have NHL ambitions, of course. Early in his career, he wrote letters to NHL teams. He received one response, from Canucks GM Pat Quinn, who didn’t offer anything but encouragement. Quinn said he would keep his name in mind.

But Johnston said realistically his ambitions were always smaller – to succeed where he was and climb the next rung on the ladder. It wasn’t until he joined the Canadian national team that he really thought about coaching in the NHL.

Not to tie together the narrative too neatly, but Johnston will take the same approach with the Penguins when training camp opens Sept. 19. Enjoy the journey. Focus on the process. Prepare, so when the big time comes, you’re ready.

* * * * *

The pressure could suffocate the Penguins. It could break them.

This team has two of the best players in the world and the highest expectations. The general manager and coach were fired because they fell short of the Stanley Cup final for five years. All that matters is the Cup.

“This is a team that never has an easy game,” said Jim Rutherford, the veteran GM who took over in June. “Everybody wants to beat the Penguins. I’d like to see if we can relieve a little bit of that pressure with them, maybe have a little more fun playing the game in the regular season.”

So how do they do that?

“We won’t talk about the playoffs,” Johnston said. “The playoffs are so irrelevant at this time of year.”

When Johnston made the playoffs for the first time in Portland, the Winterhawks stole a slogan from mixed martial arts: “Never tap out.” In other words, stay in the game. No matter what happens, never quit.

Johnston brought in MMA star Matt Lindland to speak to the team. One player asked what happened when an opponent was trying to choke him or break his arm. Wasn’t he terrified? Didn’t he think about tapping out?

“I’ll never forget his answer, and it relates so much to where we’re at right now,” Johnston said. “He said, ‘From Day 1, I prepare all year long for that big match, and once I’m in it, I never worry about anything. I never worry about what’s happened in the past because I know I’m fully prepared. I know I’m in condition. I know I’ve gone over all the moves. I know how to escape all the moves. It never even crosses my mind that someone might choke me out or break my arm or anything like that because I know I’m ready.’

“So that’s the mindset for me that our players need to have when we hit the playoffs. ‘Hey, it’s the playoffs. It’s exciting. There’s no pressure. We’ve done everything.’ ”

Johnston went to Nova Scotia to talk with Sidney Crosby and met with Evgeni Malkin in Moscow. (USA Today)
Johnston went to Nova Scotia to talk with Sidney Crosby and met with Evgeni Malkin in Moscow. (USA Today)

Johnston began preparing this summer. He went well beyond watching hundreds of games on his laptop. He flew to Moscow to visit Malkin, having lunch, having dinner, watching a workout. He flew to Nova Scotia to visit Crosby, bonding over the fact they grew up in the same area and knew some of the same people.

But he also flew to Chicago to meet with Chris Kunitz, Montreal to see Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, Minnesota to meet with Paul Martin, Alberta to see Brandon Sutter. He spent time with others in Pittsburgh – Pascal Dupuis, Rob Scuderi, Christian Ehrhoff. The point was not to talk hockey so much as to connect personally with the core players.

“That was a telling story to me how much he cares and how much he wants to communicate with the players,” Rutherford said.

The Penguins want more leadership, taking some burden off Crosby, giving more ownership to others. Crosby is the captain. Malkin and Kunitz are the alternates. But Johnston believes in leadership groups and leadership training, and he expects to have about six leaders and work with them over the course of the season.

He already has an article from Forbes on his desk he plans to pass out: “Culture of Courage: Creating A Culture That Breeds Bravery.”

“When you’re leading, you can’t have fear,” Johnston said. “If you have fear, you tend to gravitate toward being safe and conservative. You have no fear, you’re wide open. You’re going to try things. You’re going to do things.”

The Penguins want more support for Crosby and Malkin on the ice, too. The stars will be expected to carry the team sometimes, but not all the time. Rutherford set out to add more grit and depth in the off-season, and Johnston will set out to instill good habits and adjust the style in camp, the preseason and the regular season.

Rutherford wants the Penguins to be more like the Bruins, in terms of rolling four lines and playing a style consistently. Johnston wants lines built around tandems – Crosby and Kunitz, Malkin and probably Patric Hornqvist, Sutter and someone to be determined – providing a mix of stability and flexibility. He wants the Penguins to have a strong identity – pace and puck possession.

Johnston wants the Penguins to hold onto the puck, support the puck, give each other options and make good decisions. If they get the puck in the defensive zone, he wants to skate out cleanly – or perhaps chip the puck to an area where someone can skate to it – 80 percent of the time. He wants to come through the neutral zone with numbers. He wants to enter the offensive zone with possession.

“The last option,” he said, “is to dump it in deep.”

Johnston is a football fan who once observed Chip Kelly’s practices at the University of Oregon and has already visited a Steelers practice in Pittsburgh, hoping to pick up ideas he can translate to hockey. He compares it to a football offense. The puck-carrier is like a quarterback making reads.

“We want to become a versatile team with the puck,” Johnston said. “If they shut down this, we’ll take that.”

He will judge decisions, not results. If the Penguins give away the puck, it will concern him if they made the wrong read. It won’t concern him if they made the right read and the puck hit a stick or something. Develop good habits, hold onto the puck more often, and over time the results should come.

“I don’t want it to sound too complicated, because it’s not overly complicated,” Johnston said. “It’s just, it’s a style of play. Some teams will revert to, ‘Push the puck ahead. Push the puck ahead. We’re going after the puck. All we want to do is get it in the offensive zone, and then we’ll try and see what we can do from there.’ But we want to make sure that we can control the puck as much as possible at all times on the ice and play with that speed.”

The Penguins will be a work in progress. Johnston has a list of drills on his desk – multiple pages, stapled – that apply to all kinds of situations. He won’t get to them all in camp. He won’t get to them all for a while.

That’s OK. The playoffs are seven months away.

“It’s so hard to get into the playoffs in the NHL, we’ve got to enjoy the process along the way,” Johnston said. “We’ve got to enjoy every win. We’ve got to enjoy great practices. We’ve got to enjoy getting in great shape as a group and feeling we’re in better shape than other teams. If we’re going to play that speed and tempo game, we have to be in great shape. You enjoy that part of it because the enjoyment comes from knowing that all these little things are going to make you fully prepared for the most important games of the year. …

“For me, that’s where we’re at with this team. Our first day of training camp is as important as our last practice before playoffs, and it’s as important as our first playoff game. What we do in everything we do – video, on the ice, off the ice, team-building – it’s critical to making sure we’re fully prepared for the big games.”

* * * * *

After Johnston returned from Australia, he landed a coaching job at Camrose College in Alberta with the help of a couple of coaches named Dave King and Andy Murray – the same Andy Murray who had coached him at Brandon University and went on to coach the Kings and St. Louis Blues.

His first day, Johnston had to drive to Edmonton to pick up equipment. He was given the name of the sporting goods store, United Cycle, and the name of the manager who handled team sales for the region, Ken Hitchcock.

Yes, that Ken Hitchcock.

They ended up sitting in the same summer symposiums, coaching against each other, coaching with each other at the worlds. They stayed in touch and often traded information. This spring, Hitchcock called Johnston to pick his brain – and picked up ideas that he plans to implement this season in St. Louis.

“Thank god I called him then,” Hitchcock said, “because I’m not getting nothing out of him now.”

At 57, Johnston had to wait for his first NHL head coaching job – but he walks into a great situation in Pittsburgh. (AP)
At 57, Johnston had to wait for his first NHL head coaching job – but he walks into a great situation in Pittsburgh. (AP)

Days later, Rutherford called Hitchcock to ask about Johnston. Hitchcock not only knew Johnston well, he knew Penguins like Crosby and Kunitz well from Team Canada. He told Rutherford that Johnston would be a great fit – from his personality, to his style of play, to his creativity, to his attention to detail.

“He’s a lot like the experienced coaches are in that he talks puck possession, but he has a collective plan on how to keep it,” Hitchcock said. “He has a collective plan on how to get it back quickly.

“There’s a whole series of coaches that have been at the same symposiums. We’ve all presented in front of each other. Mike Babcock. Todd McLellan. Myself. Barry Trotz. Willie Desjardins. There’s a whole crew of guys that have been in the same building together in the west. We’ve all listened to each other present, and there’s a certain belief system in a collective plan that teams have.

“There’s a reason that Portland scored so many goals, and it’s not just because he had good players. There’s a plan that he puts forward that I’m sure he’s going to implement in Pittsburgh. There’s a reason that the Winterhawks are such a good puck-possession team. It’s not just skill. There’s a definitive plan that he has.”

There is a nagging question: Considering his background, why did it take Johnston so long to get this opportunity? If a coach like Hitchcock was calling to pick his brain, why weren’t all kinds of teams calling? He interviewed for three or four NHL head coaching jobs in the past.

“None of them materialized,” Johnston said. “Why didn’t they materialize? I’m not sure.”

Well, there’s only so many NHL head coaching jobs. Johnston had humble beginnings, so he wasn’t in position to land one until later in his career. There are politics.

“It’s not always the best guy that gets the job,” Rutherford said. “Sometimes you have to be connected to a certain person or certain regime. He just didn’t hit at the right time. But certainly a guy with his background it was a matter of time before he got the opportunity, and his time is now. … He’s so well-prepared for this.”

There might be one more reason: Johnston gained a reputation for being a professor type. Maybe he was too much of a teacher. Could he put down the hammer if he had to?

“I think sometimes you get slotted,” Hitchcock said. “Whether it’s right or wrong, you get slotted.”

Hitchcock said in this case, it was wrong.

“Reputations can precede you. We all know about that,” said Hitchcock, who knows plenty about that himself. “Don’t judge a book by its cover, because I’ve been on the other side, and I’ve seen how passionate and determined he is when things aren’t being done right.”

No one knows if Johnston’s plans will pan out. But he’s prepared, he’s unafraid and he will never tap out.

“He’s got big-time fire, and I’ve seen it,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve seen it first-hand. There’s a big-time fire burning there. Don’t mistake the soft-spokeness for a really, really competitive guy that will push every button to try to win.”