Interview with Mike Johnston – Part 2

With the start of training camp less than two weeks away, we sat down with Winterhawks General Manager & Head Coach Mike Johnston to discuss a number of topics. Yesterday we ran part one of the interview, below is part two.




Paul Bittner, Keegan Iverson and Dominic Turgeon are all representing the United States at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament right now, but what do you see from them this season?

Mike Johnston: “(I’m looking for) different things. With Bittner we saw some signs that he could be, with his big frame, he’s a big lanky guy, that he has some very good offensive skill. Keegan Iverson is going to be a great power forward in the league and a real physical force for us. But I think Keegan will start to score a lot more this year with some confidence. And then Dominic, he’s going to be a Taylor Peters-type of player but I believe he’s going to be a lot better in his role offensively. I see Dominic being a very reliable two-way center for us and he’s a guy we are going to count on a lot.”

What does it mean to the organization that those three are the only WHL players on the U.S. team in the Ivan Hlinka tournament?

MJ: “It shows that all three of those guys have the potential to be world class players. Two of them are going into their draft year this year with Iverson and Turgeon, and Bittner will be a draft pick the following year so it’s going to be an exciting year for them with more minutes. But I’m excited because I think all three of them were quality 16-year-olds, now they’re going to be quality 17-year-olds.”

Can you talk a little bit about our recruiting efforts in the U.S. and how that’s played a big impact in recent years and going forward?

MJ: “Well a good example is this summer, we did list some players, two of them in particular are U.S. kids that I’m really excited about. One is Henry Crone from Texas, he’s a smaller, skilled center. When I was at the U.S. national camp he led the tournament in scoring. And then you look at Mitchell Mattson, another Minnesota player who’s got a bigger frame, he’s a bigger centerman. I think he’s going to be a real strong player for us.

We’re always looking for list players. Some of these list players are from areas of the U.S. where people aren’t going to risk taking that player because he’s probably going to go to college, but we usually take a little more risk. And then some of them have just developed through the summer, they’ve developed over the last year where nobody really thought they were going to be that good and all of the sudden now they’ve come onto the market and they’re proving that they’re good in their state and also good nationally.”

Can you talk a little bit about our new assistant coach Karl Taylor, his background and how you know him?

MJ: “Originally I coached Karl, he played for me at the University of New Brunswick and was one of my captains there. Then he took his master’s degree, went on and became a coach in Canadian university and then moved into the East Coast League professionally.

When I went to Los Angeles and I was with the Kings, he was our East Coast League coach, so I know him from different perspectives, obviously as a player to begin with and now as a coach. Knowing him from L.A., I thought he would be a good fit with our staff, I wanted to make sure with our staff that when Travis left, we restructured. So we added Travis’s GM duties to Matt (Bardsley) and Kyle (Gustafson) and Karl will be our two coaches.

Right now, the way I’ve structured it with them is that they will split duties. They will both be on the bench and we will have somebody marking the video for game nights up top and being an eye in the sky, but both of them will be on the bench. Kyle worked the bench really well last year and he’s ready to move in that direction, and certainly Karl has had bench experience so they will split the coaching duties with me.

I just think that we want to have the best staff we can and I think the addition of Karl is going to be great for our group but also know that Kyle and Matt, as far as promoting them and taking on more responsibility, they’re like a player- they’re ready for it, they deserve it and I know they are going to do a good job.

We’re back on the ice in two weeks with training camp and the Neely Cup. Are you excited to be back at it?

MJ: “It’s going to be a great training camp, from the perspective that we have 36 or 37 1998-born players here, so we’re taking a look at a lot of young kids at this year’s training camp. When people come out to watch this year or they’re following along online, there’s some exciting young kids here that we’re going to have to make some tough decisions on.

Also, we’ve got some players that are coming in at 17 and 18 that are going to challenge for spots on the team, sort of like Joe Mahon did last year. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did happen and Joe Mahon went on to be part of a team that went to the Memorial Cup and he was a walk-on. It doesn’t happen often in college and it rarely happens in the Western Hockey League but you never know at training camp. And that’s the thing about camp, all our scouts are going to be here, we’re going to meet and talk to the parents and the kids. We’re going to try to get to know them a lot better than we have to date and then we’re going to evaluate them and see where they fit into our organization both short-term and long-term.”

Looking ahead to the season, coming off of a championship some coaches say that winning a second one in some ways harder than winning a first one. For one you’ve got a target on your back and then you also have to guard against complacency. As a coach, how do you approach this season making sure these kinds of things don’t overwhelm the team?

MJ: “First you have to recognize that that is a factor, any time you’ve had success people can sit back on their laurels and rest a little bit or take a breath and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be okay’.

It starts from training camp though. We always send a message early in training camp that hey, we build things on how we work, how we play, how we push things, and our training is a real big part of that. So what they’re going to do with Rich (Campbell, athletic trainer & strength and conditioning coach) starting in training camp with us on the ice will be really important to set the framework for the year.

But it really comes down to the mindset of the players and recognizing that we had won two conference championships and that our players came in last year wondering how they would be. They were really, really determined. They felt that they had left something on the table, and I believe that our players still think that there is something there to gain. We didn’t win the Memorial Cup. We were close, but there’s still something there that a few of them would like to put on their resume and to go forward after they graduate from Portland and say they won conference championships, they won a Western Hockey League championship and now they’ve won a Memorial Cup.”

When you came in in 2008 obviously the goal was to win a championship, and then we did that this year. It’s been a busy summer with scouting and travel and everything else in planning for the season, but are there times where you’re able to sit back and enjoy what the team did this past season and appreciate how far this organization has come?

MJ: “I’ve always been one that when we win games, I enjoy the win. I do. A lot of coaches talk about, ‘Well, as soon as we win the game, we turn the page right away and get on to the next game.’ I think that if you do that too often you burn yourself out, so you’ve got to enjoy what you’ve done.

A few years ago Kyle and I were walking down the hallway in the Vancouver Giants’ arena. By their dressing room they had all their pennants painted on the wall. I took a picture of it and told Kyle at that time, ‘This is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to try and collect some pennants.’ Since that time, we’ve had division championships, we’ve had conference championships, we’ve had scholastic team of the year which we won this year, we’ve had the Western Hockey League championship and we’d like to get the Memorial Cup.

So I’ve reflected back and looked at it and said ‘You know, we are starting to collect some pennants’. It’s exciting for an organization to collect pennants. They go up in the building, they’re there for an eternity, as long as your franchise is around. They represent what you’re all about, and we want to keep that going because it is a challenge.

Every year that you’ve won, and you can push it farther the next year, then you’re really setting the stage for achieving some greatness as an organization. Because it is tough, there are teams coming after you every year. They want to knock you off, you’re the team that when you come into town they’re excited to play against every night, so you’re going to get their best. So if we want to be a great organization, we have to repeat it year after year and we have to keep our team at that level.”

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