Mike Johnston feels like he is back where he belongs.
That's not a comment on the suspension that banished the Portland Winterhawks general manager and coach from his Western Hockey League team's bench for most of the 2012-13 season. It's just a statement on who he is.
"(Coaching) is in your blood when the pre-season starts until it finishes at the end of the year," he said. "It's just kind of that own ownership, being able to coach, being able to compete, and you miss that when you're away from it, for sure, and it's a good feeling to be back."
Heading into Saturday's home game against the Kamloops Blazers, he has guided the defending WHL champions to a 3-3-1 record.
Johnston was suspended last November after a league investigation determined the Winterhawks provided improper, undisclosed benefits that included free flights for players and parents.
The team, which was also fined $200,000 and lost several draft picks, and league disputed the allegations publicly but Johnston ultimately accepted his punishment.
He didn't get mad. He got busy, even though he was prohibited from going into the team's office or having any contact with players.
"I tried to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn't do, and I could still evaluate older players or our team for the future, and I could evaluate players who were on our list and determine if they were ready to fit into our program or were a ways away," he said from Portland in a recent phone interview. "I couldn't watch our team, but I could watch the other Western league teams."
Johnston watched games online and also ventured to numerous rinks to scout Winterhawk hopefuls playing at lower levels. He also attended major coaching clinics in Burnaby, B.C., where he was a speaker and attended sessions to get insight on his profession.
"Any time you're not coaching, like summer hockey, I always try and see if there's some way I can improve and try and study what other teams are doing, what other coaches are doing, take a look at our team, the organization, to see if there's any way to get an edge, to improve in what you're doing from that perspective," he said.
Johnston, a Dartmouth, N.S., native who is in his early 50s, has been trying to get an edge on the bench since he stopped playing university hockey and got into coaching while in his 20s. He joined the Winterhawks after serving in the NHL for almost a decade as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.
He has also won several medals with Canadian junior and senior-age national teams and served as an assistant with Canada's 1998 Oympic team in Nagano.
His resume includes Canadian college coaching experience with the Camrose Kodiaks, a tenure with the University of New Brunswick and a stint as an assistant at the University of Calgary, where he obtained a masters degree in coaching science. He also co-authored the book, "Simply The Best — Insights and Strategies From Great Hockey Coaches."
After joining the Winterhawks early in the 2008-09 season, he guided the team to the playoffs for the first time in four years and built them into the powerhouse that won the WHL title last season. Former assistant Travis Green filled in as head coach before taking a job as head coach of the Canucks' new AHL affiliate in Utica, N.Y.
Although he was exiled from the club, Johnston took considerable satisfaction from the accomplishment.
"Every year, we were making strides, we were taking steps and then last year we were able to break through," he said. "I was extremely proud of the coaching staff, the players and the whole team on how we handled the steps that we'd been through the last four to five years — how they progressed, how they developed and how they finally pushed over that hurdle to win a WHL championship."
Now Johnston is setting his sights on a possible repeat and another berth in the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament with the bulk of the roster that prevailed last season. The Winterhawks lost seven players to graduation and promotion to the pro ranks.
Defenceman Seth Jones, the fourth overall pick in this year's NHL draft, has moved on to the Nashville Predators, while winger Ty Rattie, a St. Louis Blues prospect who placed third in the WHL's scoring race with 48 goals and 62 assists, is now playing for Chicago Wolves of the AHL. Defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon is also in the AHL, toiling for Calgary's affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C.
Portland still has 15 holdovers from the championship club. Among the returnees are Brendan Leipsic, who had 49 goals and 120 points last season.
"It's going to be challenging, it's going to be difficult," Johnston said of the effort to repeat. "But it wasn't easy to do what we did the last couple years. There are a lot of good teams in the league. It's a well-coached league, a well-run league and every season there are five or six teams that are playing at a level where anybody could win it.
"This year it looks like it's even more wide open than that. But we've got a good nucleus back, we've got a good core group and I believe that we'll have a chance to play (for a title). We'll be right there."
And so will Johnston.
He declined to discuss his suspension in detail, and a team spokesman noted the organization is moving on from it. Johnston also declined to indicate whether the Winterhawks have reviewed or changed their recruiting procedures in wake of the suspension.
But the club is treading carefully now that Johnston has been reinstated.
"We're making sure that everything we do is in conjunction with what is being allowed by the league," said Johnston. "So we are making sure that (with) any grey area, any questions we have, we are checking with the league office first to make sure we're in accordance with exactly how everything should be done."
That way, Johnston, a self-described career coach, can focus on guiding his charges without fear of sanctions and a hiatus that, despite his efforts to keep busy, still caused obvious discomfort.
"This is what I do, what I love to do," he said. "It means a lot to be back coaching."
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