When the Vancouver Canucks on Monday hired Willie Desjardins as their next head coach, it seemed that Mike Johnston would spend at least one more season as the general manager and head coach for the Portland Winterhawks.
That changed on Wednesday when Johnston was named head coach of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
“As a career coach you aspire to get to these positions,” Johnston said at his introductory press conference in Pittsburgh. “To get to this level is something I’ve always aspired to do. It’s been my goal. It’s been my dream, and I’m really thrilled to be standing here today.”
Johnston spent six seasons as the head coach and general manager for the Winterhawks. His 231 wins as Winterhawks coach ranked second in franchise history behind Ken Hodge. Coaching an up-tempo style that featured quick transition from defense to offense, he built the Winterhawks from a WHL bottom dweller into a club that has reached the league championship series four consecutive seasons, and won the 2013 WHL title.
Johnston was known to have interviewed for the Canucks’ job, but the Pittsburgh opportunity came quickly. Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford contacted Johnston late last week and by Wednesday morning he was introduced as the man to replace Dan Bylsma who was fired on June 6 after five-plus seasons and one Stanley Cup title.
Winterhawks president Doug Piper said Johnston belongs in the NHL.
“He’s that caliber of a coach and that caliber of a human being,” Piper said.
Noting that training camp starts in August, Piper predicted that finding Johnston’s replacement will be a relatively quick process.
“There’s a lot of talent out there,” Piper said. He said inquiries about the job were “coming in from all directions” on Wednesday morning, a tribute to the Winterhawks status as an elite junior hockey organization.
In Portland, Johnston was the general manager who oversaw all hockey decisions and the head coach. Piper said the Winterhawks would be happy with a similar arrangement if they find a candidate to fill that dual role.
One thing the organization won’t do, Piper said, is bring in someone who will drastically change the framework for success that Johnston built within the club.
Johnston “has given us a legacy and a foundation” that we intend to build upon, Piper said.
Piper said the search, which figures to begin at the NHL Draft in Philadelphia on Friday and Saturday, will start with the question of who has characteristics that match the winning framework Johnston established. The second question will be: Is that person available?
As an example, Piper noted that former Winterhawks coach and player Mike Williamson might have been a good fit, but Williamson is not available because he was recently hired by the Tri-City Americans.
A possible candidate with the closest ties to the Winterhawks’ recent success is Travis Green, who just completed his first season coaching the Utica (N.Y.) Comets to a winning record in the American Hockey League. Green guided the Hawks to the 2013 WHL title while Johnston served a league-imposed suspension stemming from an investigation into player benefits.
“We love Travis. We still consider him part of our family,” Piper said of Green.
Asked at Wednesday’s Pittsburgh press conference about the WHL suspension, Johnston said he was penalized for his inexperience as a general manager, not for any coaching violation.
“I was a rookie general manager in the Western Hockey League. On the player benefits side we made an error in the way we did things the first couple of years,” Johnston said.
Johnston was named head coach and general manager of the Winterhawks in October of 2008 when Calgary businessman Bill Gallacher bought the franchise. The Winterhawks were at the bottom of the Western Hockey League, but Johnston quickly turned around the club.
“Without Portland this wouldn’t have been possible and I am truly grateful to Bill Gallacher, the players and staff I have worked with over the last six years,” Johnston said Wednesday. “The time has gone by fast but it will always be memorable.”
His building project in Portland started with the first pick in the 2009 Bantam Draft — Derrick Pouliot, who figures to be a rookie defenseman for Johnston in Pittsburgh.
Of course, Johnson will also be coaching Sidney Crosby, who on Tuesday won the Hart Trophy (league MVP), the Ted Lindsay Award (outstanding player as voted by peers), and Art Ross Trophy (NHL scoring champion) at the 2014 NHL Awards. He was also named an NHL First-Team All-Star.