Mike Johnston may be gone, but he's hardly forgotten.
"Our team couldn't play the way it is without what Mike instilled into our group over the past few years," Travis Green, the interim general manager and head coach of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, said on Tuesday.
The Winterhawks are here for an engagement tonight with the Kamloops Blazers. Game time at Interior Savings Centre is 7 o'clock.
But the Winterhawks are here without Johnston, who is the main architect of their recent successes, including back-to-back appearances in the WHL's championship final.
On Nov. 28, the WHL suspended Johnston for the remainder of this season and the playoffs for his role in what the league called "a series of violations of WHL regulations." The Winterhawks also were fined $200,000 and forfeited a number of bantam draft picks.
In 2008-09, their first season under Johnston, the Winterhawks improved from 11 to 19 victories. In the next three seasons, they won 44, 50 and 49 games. They go into tonight at 48-9-3, and they lead the overall standings by eight points over the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Green, a 42-year-old native of Castlegar, has been with Johnston in Portland since Day 1. The two struck up a relationship during stints with Canada's national team, Johnston as a coach and Green as a player.
"He's highly respected and he's as good a coach and as good a person as you'll have," Green said. "He's a great teacher, not only for the players but he's been a great mentor for me. I've learned a lot from him over the years regarding coaching."
Obviously, Green was a good student. The Winterhawks were 20-4-1 when the WHL lowered the boom; they are 28-5-2 under Green's stewardship. Green said that a lot of the credit for the consistency has to go to Johnston.
"It's one thing Mike has preached . . . to our players and staff," Green explained. "If you want to be a pro, there's going to be things that happen to you that you're not happy about, in your personal life and in your professional life. At the end of the day, you still have to go on the ice and perform.
"A lot of players in the NHL have a lot of things going on in their lives that people don't see and don't understand, but that's why they're pros and that's why they're there. They perform."
Green knows of what he speaks. After playing four seasons in the WHL, he went on to an NHL career that featured 970 regular-season games split among six teams.
These days, Johnston, under terms of the suspension, isn't allowed to be around the team under any circumstances.
"We talk," Green said. "Mike and I have talked every day for 4 years. We're good friends and we still talk."
The message from Johnston, ever since Nov. 28, has been quite simple: Do the job.
"From Day 1," Green said, "he's just more or less said, 'OK, go to work.' I've been in charge of the defence and the penalty kill since we got here and he's never once said 'Do this. Do that.' "
Green said the Winterhawks organization is built around "hiring good people and letting them do their jobs."
As he put it, "If you do that you are going to get their best work and their best results. With this (situation), he's treated it the same way."
The one thing the Winterhawks have done is bring assistant coach Kyle Gustafson out of the spotter's booth and put him behind the bench. Gustafson also does the video work, something that is vitally important to today's WHL coaching staffs.
"He's great at the video stuff and that's huge," Green said. "It's good for him to get onto the bench and he's adapted well."
With fewer than four weeks remaining in the regular season, Green allowed that the Winterhawks may add another coach to their staff in the next while, just to help down the stretch.
The Winterhawks go into tonight's game having won 12 of 13 games since their poorest stretch of the season - a 2-0-2 stint a month ago.
Portland beat the visiting Spokane Chiefs 8-3 on Monday, getting 16 points from the line of Chase De Leo, Taylor Leier and Oliver Bjorkstrand. That threesome was on the ice for seven Portland goals. At the same time, the WHL's highest-scoring line - Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan and Ty Rattie, with 291 points between them - didn't pick up even one point.
"They were just OK," Green said. "The other line was great."
The Blazers (40-15-5), meanwhile, go in riding a seven-game winning streak and knowing that a victory will get them to within one point of the B.C. Division-leading Kelowna Rockets.
"When we play Kamloops," Green said, "we know we're heading into a battle. We know we're playing one of the best teams in the league."
JUST NOTES: Portland D Derrick Pouliot, who hasn't played since Jan. 25 because of a high ankle sprain, is back skating. The Winterhawks hope to get him into as many as eight games before the playoffs. . . . Portland also will be without F Taylor Peters, who will complete a two-game WHL suspension tonight. . . . The Blazers have added D Connor Clouston, 16, to their roster for the remainder of this season. Clouston's midget AAA team, the Medicine Hat-based Southeast Tigers, didn't make the playoffs. A third-round pick in the 2011 bantam draft, Clouston played three games with the Blazers earlier in the season. . . . Prior to the game, the Blazers will salute the Canadian junior women's championship rink of Corryn Brown, Erin Pincott, Sam Fisher and Sydney Fraser.
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