Mike Johnston

COVID-19 ends WHL season -- with the Portland Winterhawks as champs

COVID-19 ends WHL season -- with the Portland Winterhawks as champs

The bad news for the Portland Winterhawks and their fans Wednesday was that the Western Hockey League has canceled the remaining games of its regular season.

The good news, though, is that the young Winterhawks have capped off the abbreviated season by being declared the winners of the WHL’s U.S. Division and, even better, winners of the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as regular-season champions, with the best record in the entire league.

The WHL is still holding out hope of holding its playoffs if the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and conditions allow.

Mike Johnston, the team’s head coach, vice president and general manager, admitted that it has been a surprising season for a young team not expected to contend this season.

“To be honest, it was,” Johnston said. “We thought at Christmas we wanted to see where we would be, in the running, and we were kind of surprised at that time we were holding that top position in the league.

“We decided at the trade deadline not to make any moves -- one of the first years we didn’t make any moves, for the simple reason that we liked our team. They were over-performing. And I thought they deserved to make a run with it.

“Also, we knew going forward that we had a phenomenal team coming back next year and the following year so we didn’t want to tinker with that. Most teams in our position did make moves and acquired players, but even with that, we still held on right to the end.

“It’s amazing. This is only the third time we’ve had the best overall record and we’ve had a lot of good teams.”

The Hawks were loaded with youngsters this season. They will have two big-time losses next season, in goalie Joel Hofer and captain and star defenseman Johnny Ludvig. Both could be headed for professional hockey next season.

But all of the team’s offensive firepower should return.

“In the future, you’re looking at a real nice team for next year and the year after,” Johnston said, “A team that should be one of the strongest in the league.

“Our core players will be back. Two years ago, we had four 16-year-olds in our lineup and this year we had three. A third of our team was 16- and 17-years-old this year.”

The star of that group will be a player, Seth Jarvis, who is expected to be a high pick in the NHL draft this year. As a 17-year-old, he had 42 goals and 56 assists in just 58 games.

Indeed, a franchise that has had so much success under Johnston seems to be on the same road again.

Winterhawks add Don Hay as an assistant coach

Winterhawks add Don Hay as an assistant coach

The Portland Winterhawks announced Monday afternoon that they've added one of the greatest coaches in Western Hockey League history to their staff.

Don Hay, the WHL's career head-coaching leader with 750 wins, won 3 Memorial Cup Championships with the Kamloops Blazers and Vancouver Giants, has two WHL Coach of the Year Awards, a Gold Medal in the 1995 World Juniors, and NHL Head Coaching roles with Phoenix and Calgary. During the 2017-18 season while coachig at Kamloops, Hay set a WHL record, surpassing longtime Portland Coach Ken Hodge to become the leagues winningest Coach with 750 wins in his career.

He will join head coach Mike Johnston's staff as an assistant coach.

"We are thrilled to add a coach of Don's caliber to our staff.  He will bring not only experience in the league but also a history of winning. When I first approached Don about the idea I wasn't sure what his reaction would be, but he was both interested and excited. (Associate head coach) Kyle (Gustafson) and I have always had a good rapport with Don and feel he will definitely be a great addition to our group," said Johnston, who also serves as the team's vice president and general manager.

“I’m excited to work with the Portland Winterhawks organization. I’m looking forward to working with Mike and Kyle and the rest of their staff. It’s a great opportunity to continue to learn and add my experience to the coaching staff,” said Hay in the team's news release.

 

Underdog Winterhawks fly past Cougars, face Kelowna Friday

Underdog Winterhawks fly past Cougars, face Kelowna Friday

When the Portland Winterhawks lost Game 3 of their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series against Prince George in Memorial Coliseum last week, they looked down and out. Finished.

The loss meant they had given back a shocking series-opening win in Prince George and were trailing 2-1 in the series. And the 6-1 score in the defeat against a heavily favored team that was older, more experienced and more successful in the regular season than Portland made it seem the series was soon to end.

But as we should know by now, Mike Johnston's teams don't quit. And the Hawks didn't. They won Game 4 in Portland, climbed aboard their bus and rode 15 hours to Prince George to steal game 5 and then returned home Monday night to throttle the Cougars 4-2 and capture the first-round series. It was an incredible comeback by a young team that many thought would scuffle just to make the playoffs. This was supposed to be a rebuilding/restocking season for Portland.

But Johnston is the Wizard of the Western Hockey League, a coach who finds the kind of players he wants -- even when he has low draft choices or none at all -- and then develops them into a gritty, fast and poised team. This series was a snapshot of what the Winterhawks have accomplished during his coaching tenures in Portland.

"It was indescribable," said Portland's scrappy and talented left wing Skyler McKenzie. "It was the first time I've really been a part of a full series win and it was an incredible feeling. We just had to play fast and play as hard as we possibly could. They're a bigger team, they're more mature and they were built for the playoffs. We were the underdogs coming into the series and we knew that. We wanted to make a good impression on the league and that's what we did.

"We realized (after) Game 3 that we needed to play harder. It needed to be every single shift. Our game plan the whole game was just forecheck, forecheck, forecheck. We've played the systems the right way and we played Mike's systems and Mike Johnston is a hell of a coach. He's done wonderful things with this team. He's directed us on the right path."

And Johnston knows how to win playoff series in the WHL. As coach of the Hawks, he has won 15 playoff series and lost only four, with an overall playoff record of 69-35.

"We knew we didn't play our best in the last game up in PG," Johnston said after the Monday win. "(Goaltender) Cole Kehler got us the win in that game, to be honest. Coming back in here, we had to start playing the way we can play. And tonight I was really happy with our game. I thought from start to finish we played pretty consistent. Cole was good in goal when he had to be and tonight we played with more speed, more pace to the game. We didn't deserve the last one but I thought we definitely deserved this one."

What got into the Winterhawks after that 6-1 thrashing in Game 3?

"Our guys started to learn what playoff hockey is all about," Johnston said.  "You can't take undisciplined penalties, you've got to be careful. They're a big physical team and there was no way we were going to win that battle. If we couldn't win the physical grinding battle, we had to play with more speed and use our skill. When you win a series that is as hard for travel -- we had 15 hours up and 15 hours back -- and we had more travel because we had to start up there, I give our guys a lot of credit. For a young team, they played hard and they endured a lot. We aren't used to those 15-hour bus trips."

Next up for Portland is Kelowna, which finished just one point behind Prince George in the B.C. Division standings. The schedule for that series was released Tuesday morning:

Game 1: Friday, April 7 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.

Game 2: Saturday, April 8 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.

Game 3: Tuesday, April 11 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 7:00 p.m.

Game 4: Wednesday, April 12 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 7:00 p.m.

Game 5*: Friday, April 14 at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.

Game 6*: Sunday, April 16 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 5 :00 p.m.

Game 7*: Tuesday, April 18 at Kelowna, 7:00 p.m.

* -- if necessary.

Mike Johnston returns to Winterhawks with opening-night win

Mike Johnston returns to Winterhawks with opening-night win

Mike Johnston was bubbling over Saturday night after his team took a 7-3 win over Seattle in front of a Moda Center crowd of 8,705 to open the 2016-17 season and his second tenure as coach of the Hawks. And it wasn't just the win that had him pumped up.

"It was exciting," said Johnston, who opened last season as head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "To be honest, our fans are amazing. It really is quite an atmosphere here. No matter where you've coached, to coach in this building in front of those fans... they were into the game right from the very beginning.

"We're a young team, we're going to make mistakes. At the beginning of the second we let in a goal. At the beginning of the third we let in a goal. Hopefully we'll grow from those mistakes but I thought they showed great resiliency. We had six guys who had never played in the Western Hockey League before. And we had such a young team that I was worried when it got tied up. I wanted to see how we'd react. I didn't really shorten the bench in any way until maybe eight minutes left in the game.

"I just let the guys play through it. I wanted to see how they'd react. It's really what I'm going to have to do for the first part of this year. You may look at it some nights and say, 'What the hell is he doing? Why isn't he changing?' But I have to let some of these kids get these experiences if we're going to be a really good team. They've got to learn to play and I've got to protect them, too, so it's going to be a fine line at this level,"

With all the youth, Johnston knows it's important to get off to a good start.

"It is important to get confidence for young guys," he said. "If things aren't going well, they have a tendency to squeeze the stick and be very nervous when making plays but at the same time, we have to be very patient with them. We have to just focus on 'Are we getting better? What are we correcting?' every single game and every single practice and almost be oblivious to a lot of the other stuff that's going on around us, including the scoreboard and including the standings. If you focus on the right things, about November we'll be on the decent side of things.

"I like our group. I think we're going to give other teams trouble because of our speed. We're dangerous. Can we score enough? That is going to be the question. I was quite happy with the way we played tonight."

Ryan Hughes and Evan Weinger had three points apiece for the Hawks, who played without Keegan Iverson and Caleb Jones, still in their NHL camps. The Thunderbirds were missing three NHL camp invitees,