Pressed into coaching duty, Travis Green’s Winterhawks aim for WHL title

At age 42, Travis Green is hardly a sage old man.

But turning pro at 19 and spending 14 seasons in the National Hockey League have provided him a life experience to which very few people can relate.

Now, as the interim head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, he says there are times he wishes he could go back to his early playing days and do things a little differently.

“I joke about it,” says Green. “I never knew how important coaches were until I started coaching.

“I’ve learned what a pain in the ass I must have been as a player. At 19 when I turned pro until 37 when I retired, I learned a lot over that time and I look back now and, joking aside, I’m a little embarrassed at how I was as a young guy. I see a lot of that in our own players. It doesn’t surprise me some of the things these young guys will do or say or even how they’ll play at certain times of the game. They’re young and they haven’t been through a lot in their hockey careers. But yeah, there are times when I look back and think, ‘God, I must have been a nightmare for some of my coaches.’ ”

Those omnipotent hockey gods, it seems, have a wicked sense of humour.

Green was unexpectedly thrust into the position in November when incumbent head coach and general manager Mike Johnston was suspended by the WHL for the rest of the 2012-13 season for violating the league’s rules regarding permissible benefits. Despite his acumen in the game, with 970 NHL games as a player and five years as Johnston’s assistant in Portland, Green had never been a head coach. The former NHLer says when he first heard the news, he couldn’t believe Johnston would be gone for the remainder of the year.

“Frustration and shock,” says Green of his first thoughts. “I think our whole organization was in shock at the time.”

And while moving up in the ranks is what every assistant aspires to do, Green had little time to prepare for running the show in Portland.

“It’s not the way I envisioned getting behind the bench on a regular basis,” says Green, who is also assistant GM. “But I have enjoyed it. When I came to this league I really came to learn the trade of coaching. It’s one thing to know the game well and play the game for a long time, but it’s another thing to really learn how to coach.”

So far, so good.

Under Green’s tutelage, the Winterhawks went 37-12-1-2 and finished first in the WHL standings with 117 points and a 57-12-1-2 overall record. In the playoffs, the team is 8-2 and back in the Western Conference final for the third consecutive year. They’ll open their series against the Kamloops Blazers on Friday.

“His record speaks for itself,” says Portland captain Troy Rutkowski. “He’s done a great job. He’s done a great job of calming us down after what happened (to Johnston).”

Credit goes to the system and players Johnston left for his staff to continue running in his stead. Green admits it took him four or five games – and more than a few nervous moments – to adjust to the fact that he was now in charge of the team. If Green was anxious, Rutkowski says the interim coach did a good job of hiding it, because no one on the team noticed.

“The nervous part is just that you’re preparing differently than when you’re an assistant coach,” says Green. “Just developing my routine took a few games and then I wasn’t that nervous. I’ve had a lot of coaches in the past and I don’t think they over-examined things. They picked their spots. If you ask me if I was nervous, for sure I was. But as a coach I think you’re always nervous.”

There also hasn’t been much hand-wringing over tough decisions. He believes that sometimes, when there’s no right or wrong solution to a problem, you’ve just got to go with your instincts.

“There’s enough people out there that will second-guess you.”

In the dressing room, the players have noticed a change in demeanor. Johnston is quiet and slightly more patient, where Green is more fired up.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard (Johnston) raise his voice,” says Rutkowski. “(Green) is louder, so they’re different, but at the same time all the systems are still the same.”

Green says he still talks with Johnston, who is banned from being around the team in any capacity, on a regular basis. Portland is a team many in the WHL love to hate, even before they were caught breaking the rules, with rival fans dubbing them the "Cheaterhawks" or "Evil Empire." Still, Green sympathizes greatly with the fact his friend and mentor is now forced to watch the team he built from the ground up in 2008 on television.

“I can’t imagine,” says Green. “I don’t even want to put myself in his spot. We all know that it’s not easy for him and we all know that he’s not a guy that takes days off, even in the summertime. Hockey is his life.”

Now, however, the student has the rare opportunity to surpass his teacher. The Winterhawks have already won two straight conference titles and are looking for a third, but they’ve fallen short in the WHL championship. All the Winterhawks have to do is get past Kamloops, the team they ousted from the playoffs in Game 7 last year, for another shot at the elusive WHL title.

“We’ve gone to the finals two years in a row, but to lose in the finals two years in a row isn’t easy,” says Green. “When you go that far and pour your heart into something and you come up short, it’s not easy. There’s a lot of motivation for this group.”

Least of which is winning for both their new coach and, more importantly for them, their old one.

“The thing about Mike is he’s a great coach, a great hockey guy, but he’s really a great person, a great-hearted person,” says Green. “For him to be away from the game is not easy on him. The players all know that and he’s a big part of why they’re all here.

“It’s hard not to have him in your mind.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: | Twitter @Sunayas

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