It’s a time of great change for the Portland Winterhawks. In the 2014 National Hockey League draft, four key players were selected by professional teams. But even more earth shaking is the departure of Head Coach and General Manager Mike Johnston. Johnston led the Hawks for over five years in a time of resurgence for ice hockey in Portland. Under his guidance the Winterhawks won the Western Conference the last four years.
Johnston, 57, has accepted the position of head coach for the NHL’s Pittsburg Penguins.
The legacy of Johnston’s time at the helm of the Winterhawks cannot be understated. In the three years before his arrival, the team was a constant disappointment. They were well out of the playoff picture and combined for 47 wins over three years. Johnston’s guidance and savvy personnel acquisitions have transformed the Winterhawks into perennial contenders. Every year Johnston’s team won at least 44 games with a club record 57 wins in 2012–13.
In the world of sports, perception is reality, and Johnston has turned around the perceptions of this team 180 degrees. Portland hockey fans can now expect fierce competition, disciplined play and talented young players joining the team, such as defenseman Matthew Dumba, who came from the NHL midseason to bolster Portland’s defensive efforts.
Team owner Bill Gallacher announced finding a new head coach is the team’s highest priority following Johnston’s departure, and it didn’t take long to fill the position. Because of Johnston’s success in the role of head coach and GM, the Winterhawks have hired Jamie Kompen, an assistant coach for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks in the same position.
If there is any black eye on Johnston from his Winterhawks tenure, it comes from the illegal benefits controversy which broke open in the 2012–13 season. Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season, the team fined $200,000 and draft picks were taken away. The Western Hockey League violations primarily involved free plane tickets given to players’ family members, as well as benefits to certain players. There were no pay offs or under-the-table deals, but they were violations of the WHL’s rules. These rules are important because many WHL players are underage minors and must be governed differently than other professional sports. But there is a silver lining to go with the black eye: In the season of Johnston’s suspension, the young team he had assembled reached the pinnacle of major-minor hockey, winning the Memorial Cup.
Before officially hiring their new head coach, Penguins management stated they had a clear-cut first choice, and Johnston appears to be that man. He will lead NHL superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who last season guided Pittsburg to a 51–24 record. They lost in the conference semifinals to the New York Rangers. The Penguins last won the Stanley Cup in 2008–09. Johnston previously worked in the NHL as associate head coach of the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks.
Can Johnston’s successor possibly win as consistently as the Winterhawks have the last half decade? Unlikely. Can this team continue to compete and draw fans in support? Much more likely. In a town that will always love basketball and soccer (maybe even baseball?) more than ice hockey, the Portland Winterhawks remain a niche attraction. But success will always fill arenas and drive fans to cheer. Whether they play at the Memorial Coliseum or the Rose Garden, a Winterhawks game is one of the best tickets in town. Screaming and chanting, Portland sports fans know how to support a team. With the Mike Johnston era at its end, one can only hope the Winterhawks continue to thrive without him.