Kukla's Korner

Above the Glass

From Portland, with love

Here in the Rose City, news of Mike Johnston’s new role as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins is bittersweet. Since Coach Johnston arrived in Portland in 2008, Portland Winterhawks fans have grown accustomed to winning streaks, championship seasons and shiny objects. We are sad to see him go, but Winterhawks fans and players wish him all the best. So to my fellow Pittsburgh Penguins fans, I say get ready. Having spent the past six years watching Mike Johnston change Portland’s game, I can personally guarantee you it’s going to be one sweet ride.

There are so many great things for which Portland will always remember Mike Johnston. These are just a few of my favorites:

Aaanndd…they’re back. In 2010, the Portland Winterhawks returned to the WHL playoffs after a four-year absence.  Rookie Ty Rattie cemented his place in Winterhawks history in the first round, when he scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 7 with the Spokane Chiefs. The team advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they fell to the Vancouver Giants, but getting that far was a huge step forward. The next year, the Winterhawks made an even bigger leap forward.  Mike Johnston and his assistant coaches guided the team to the first of four consecutive Western Conference titles that would also yield three U.S. Division titles (2011, 2013, 2014), one Ed Chynoweth Cup, one appearance in the Memorial Cup final, the Scotty Munro trophy for best regular season record and the WHL scoring trophy (shared in 2013 by Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan). The 2013 accolades and awards occurred while Coach Johnston was on a season-long suspension, but the system, values and professionalism he instilled in the team were the foundation of their success in the 2012 -2013 season, the best in franchise history. 

Greatness comes standard. My mother-- who claims not to be an expert on hockey – offered the best description of Coach Johnston that I’ve ever heard: “He’s like John Wooden. He’s a great coach because he can make any player great.” She’s right. 20 of his players went on to be selected in the NHL entry draft, including six first-round picks. Players like Seth Jones, Sven Bartschi, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nic Petan have headlined recent NHL Entry Drafts, but under Mike's tutelage, several lesser known players also flourished and signed with either professional hockey teams, including Chris Francis, Troy Rutkowski, Stefan Schneider and Oliver Gabriel.  He has a keen eye for finding talent from all sectors of the hockey world. No matter where a player comes from or what position he plays, he will develop into a better player on Mike Johnston’s watch.  In Pittsburgh, I would predict that defensemen will start scoring more and that high-scoring forwards will elevate their defensive games. As for the goalies, I might suggest that Pittsburgh fans either invest in blindfolds or plan on an extra adult beverage at games:

Out of the comfort zone; into the win column. I didn’t truly understand the expression “flip your lid” until goalie Mac Carruth came to town. Now I do. Mac was legendary for his confidence, chirping opponents who got in his face and getting into an occasional fight (he once dropped Kamloops Blazers goalie Jeff Bosch with one punch during a line brawl). But he was mostly notorious for coming dangerously far out of his crease at even more dangerous moments in critical games. Mac didn’t just do that on his own; Mike and the assistant coaches encouraged him to come out of the crease and play the puck. It had risks, but in the end it also yielded great rewards for Mac and the team. Mac Carruth ended his career in Portland as the winningest goalie in Winterhawks franchise history (117 wins), number one in shutouts (11) and the winningest playoff goaltender in WHL history. 

Just one of the boys. Coach Johnston rarely shows a lot of emotion on the bench, so you notice when he does. The most memorable display of his pride in the Portland Winterhawks happened after Game 6 of the 2014 WHL Championship series, when the team roared back from a 5-2 deficit in the third period to a 6-5 overtime win, forcing a Game 7 in Portland. Mike left the bench to join the players in celebration on the ice. Looking back now that he’s gone, it means even more than it did in the moment.

#thankyoumike. Of all the things Mike Johnston has done for Portland, my favorite moment can’t be found on a highlight reel. It happened on the first day of training camp in August 2010, which was also the first day I officially began covering the team for oregonlive. Training camp was still held at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Sven Bartschi had just arrived from Switzerland, not yet 18 and already making a splash. You didn’t need to know the team or the coaches to know that big things were coming. You could feel it. That’s where I met the future head coach of my favorite NHL team for the first time. I was a complete unknown, having gotten my start with a DIY blog. Mike didn’t care that I was a novice or that I didn’t have the same credentials as the more seasoned sports writers in town. He just wanted to know if Graham Kendrick had gotten me everything I needed and how he could help me learn more about the game and the team. On the ice, he expected the best out of players and they have delivered on their promise. Mike Johnston isn’t just a great coach because he makes players great. He is an exceptional human being who left Portland in a better place than he found it. Enjoy the ride, Pittsburgh. We hope you have the time of your lives. Thanks to Mike Johnston, I know for sure that Portland did.

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About Above the Glass

Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.

I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass

Email: samantha@kuklaskorner.com