Like so many co-workers, Mike Johnston and Jamie Kompon carpooled to work. They lived in the same neighbourhood – roughly two kilometres apart – and took turns making the 20-minute commute to the Staples Center every game day for two years.
The majority of their drive was spent talking hockey: about the Los Angeles Kings (the team they worked for), other teams, their players, other players, power plays, penalty kills, breakout plays, and anything else two assistant coaches could dissect in the car.
“We’re both hockey fanatics,” said Kompon. “That’s what we eat, sleep, breathe for is hockey.”
“We have the same outlook on the game, the same outlook on how the game should be played and how the game should be taught.”
The teaching component was particularly important, considering both Kompon and Johnston are former educators. Kompon worked as a math and gym teacher at a private boys’ high school in Montreal while serving as an assistant coach to the men’s hockey team at McGill University. Johnston graduated with a teaching degree, but when he couldn’t find a job he eventually ended up taking a coaching gig at Camrose Lutheran College in Alberta.
“We’re both teachers by trade,” said Kompon. “I was a teacher for five years, so we both have that background and we feel that’s very important for young players to have structure. If you want to get to the next level and you don’t have structure, it’s hard to break from a bad habit – even at the NHL level.”
It was the shared background and coaching philosophy that made Kompon the perfect replacement for Johnston with the Portland Winterhawks after the coach-GM got the job leading the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in the off-season.
Kompon knows he has a big task at hand. Taking the reins from Johnston – a beloved figure in Portland who turned around the fortunes of that Western Hockey League franchise – will not be easy. The team has started slowly in the 48-year-old’s first foray into junior hockey as a head coach and general manager. The Winterhawks, who made it to the WHL final last season, are last in the Western Conference with a 1-6-0-1 record one month into the season.
“Obviously this start is not the way I envisioned it, or that we envisioned it,” Kompon said over the phone from Portland. “But we’re excited about getting some players back. We’re moving in the right direction that’s for sure.”
He admits managing his time between the coaching and GM roles has been his adjustment with his new job. He’s had to rely on his staff – assistant GM Matt Bardsley and assistant coaches Kyle Gustafson and Keith McKittrick – to bring him up to speed as quickly as possible on the intricacies of the league and his players. It’s still very much a work in progress and the team’s uber-passionate fans that have been spoiled with four straight conference titles and a WHL championship in 2013 should be patient.
“I’m trying to juggle everything and it’s a very big learning curve,” said Kompon. “You’ve got a lot of balls in the air and you have to be sure you don’t drop any while you keep juggling them. Thankfully, I’ve got a great support staff."
The hiring process was quick for Kompon. It took two days between Johnston’s initial call to gauge his friend’s interest and both sides agreeing to terms. At the time, Kompon was still under contract as an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, and even though there’s no such thing as security in the coaching world, the native of Thunder Bay, Ont., felt he was in a good place surrounded by good people.
And he had more than paid his dues. When Johnston called to make his pitch, he had already spent 17 seasons working in the NHL and had never held a head coaching position. He had never run his own team or been the one to make those final, critical decisions when a game was on the line.
It was that opportunity with Portland – a winning, stable franchise built by his likeminded friend – that was too good to pass up. In return, Johnston wanted someone he trusted to continue the program he had painstakingly resurrected from ruin.
“For me it was an opportunity to be the boss and to run my own team,” said Kompon, who won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2012 and again with Chicago in 2013.
“I’m confident I could have gone on being an assistant coach, whether it was in Chicago or somewhere else for the next few years, but this opportunity presented itself and it was too good to pass up.”
He consulted with Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville and fellow assistant Mike Kitchen, among coaches he calls mentors, and both men told him it was a great chance to build something of his own.
It wouldn’t be the first time Kompon had chosen the uncertain path in favour of something more familiar – it’s how he made it to the NHL in the first place.
Back in 1996, he decided to leave the security and stable paycheque of his teaching job to fulfill what had been always been the dream of coaching full-time. He had run a number of successful hockey schools, but it was still a massive gamble. There was a lot of pressure and the decision, says Kompon, played a role in ending his first marriage.
“I put all my eggs in one basket and quit my teaching job,” said Kompon. “I decided I wanted to become a hockey coach.”
“It was a transition obviously from teaching with trying to make ends meet, but you know what? I loved every second of it. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve gone through in terms of learning to manage things and multi-task.”
His first break came when he was hired as an assistant coach by the Baltimore Bandits, Anaheim’s AHL affiliate. Then, the following season, in 1997, he was hired by Quenneville in St. Louis to be the NHL team’s video coach and the rest is history.
Kompon remarried and, this time, there was no illusion about how much the game or coaching meant to him. And, by the sounds of it, his wife, Tina, is a saint who understands that devotion.
“She kind of knows where she stands in the pecking order,” he joked. “If you were to call up my wife right now and ask her what my first love was, she’d tell you it’s hockey.
"She’d tell you herself.”