After finishing his college hockey career at Brandon University in Manitoba, Mike Johnston was offered a coaching job at Camrose College in Alberta.
(While he was there, Johnston worked with another young fellow by the name of Bill Peters – who, coincidentally enough, just earned his first NHL head coaching position last week with the Carolina Hurricanes. Funny how that works out…)
Anyway, just a few years into the job, Johnston felt he was ready for the next step. So he decided to take action.
“I sent a letter to several NHL general managers, saying I’ve been coaching four years now at Camrose College and I’m ready to coach in the NHL,” Johnston laughed. “’Just keep me in mind.’ I got a few replies, (including one) from Pat Quinn at the time.”
While Johnston, now 57, ended up waiting longer than he may have expected for his first NHL head coaching job, it’s quite alright with him as it ended up becoming more about the journey than the destination, as the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia native realized he still had a lot to learn before he could realize his dream.
And now Johnston, having spent time at every level – college, junior, international and the NHL – over the years, has made that dream come true as he was named head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.
“As a career coach, you aspire to get to these positions,” he said. “Certainly, I’ve been in the National Hockey League before as an assistant and associate coach, but to get to this level is something I’ve always aspired to do. It’s been my goal, it’s been my dream and I’m really thrilled to be standing here today.
“It’s been a long time since I wrote that note to those general managers,” he continued with a smile, “And I certainly have enjoyed the process of going through as a career coach and developing along the way. I think in whatever positions we have we’re all continuing to develop and trying to get better, and that’s been my goal all along.”
Johnston has certainly done that, as he made sure to get the most out of every single coaching experience he’s had over the years and learn as much as he could from the coaches and players that surrounded him. That diligence didn’t escape unnoticed.
Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill, who played for Johnston at the 1994 and ’95 World Junior Championships (where Canada won back-to-back gold medals), called him a “true student of the game.”
“He has junior hockey, he’s got the National Hockey League, he has international hockey – he has it all,” Botterill said. “He has learned from the coaches he has been under and the elite players that he’s had, and it has helped him get to where he is at now.”
Johnston, who’s co-authored two hockey books with former NHL player Ryan Walter: “Simply The Best: Insights and Strategies From Great Hockey Coaches” and “Hockey Plays and Strategies” (and also kept a detailed “Coach’s Corner” section explaining his philosophies on the Winterhawks’ website), says he feels that his biggest strength today as a coach is the ability to build a program, build a template and build an identity that’s clearly understood by the staff and the players and ensures that everyone is in sync.
Johnston wants this Penguins team to have the same identity that his team in Portland did. That means playing a system built on puck possession, puck management, tempo and pace.
That shouldn’t be a problem, according to Penguins defense prospect Derrick Pouliot – who spent four-plus years with Johnston in Portland after becoming his first-ever draft pick as Winterhawks GM/head coach back in 2009.
“Pittsburgh has somewhat of a similar makeup of team and Mike can definitely adjust,” Pouliot said. “He definitely has the ability to adjust his coaching style to the type of team he has. He’ll do well and I’m really excited to see him up there.”