By now, most Penguins fans know that Johnston spent the past four-plus years coaching one of Pittsburgh’s top defensive prospects, Derrick Pouliot, with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
And surely the team’s most hardcore of supporters have already noted that Johnston was an assistant coach on Canada’s 1994 and ’95 World Junior Championship teams that included current Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill.
But perhaps this next nugget of information will surprise you – especially when you hear the whole story.
In 1997, Johnston was an associate coach for Canada’s entry in the World Championships. His roster featured two-time Stanley Cup champion and current ROOT SPORTS Penguins color commentator Bob Errey.
At the time, Errey’s pro career was winding down, while Johnston was just beginning to make his mark. Though Johnston was a bit of a novice when it came to dealing with professional players, he made an impression on Errey.
“He was pretty young at that time, but obviously you could tell that he was highly respected,” Errey said. “Andy Murray was the head coach and there is nobody more detailed than Andy Murray. I could sense that Mike was the same way. Just taking and grasping everything and absorbing everything.”
The Canadians went on to capture the gold medal that spring, with Errey contributing two goals and three points in 11 games. That Canada won was no surprise, especially when you consider the team’s lineup featured Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla and Mark Recchi, among others.
What might really surprise you about this story is what Johnson said shortly after Wednesday's media conference announcing him as the Penguins head coach.
“Bob Errey was one of my favorite guys," Johnston said. “I remember when Bob came into training camp, and I looked at him and said, ‘He’s not a very big guy. He doesn’t skate very well. What’s his role?’ I guess he’s a heart and soul kind of guy.
"And he became, by the end of the tournament – I said this to a couple of guys – our most valuable player. We had a lot of really high-end guys, and he was probably the most valuable guy, blocking shots and doing everything.”
Johnston noted that during those short two or four-week tournaments, you can create a special bond that feels like it lasted an entire season, and can last forever.
That certainly seems to be the case, as Errey couldn’t hold back his praise when asked what adding Johnston will mean for the Penguins.
“I just think it’s a great hire for us,” Errey said. “I think we got the best guy out there. And he’s a detailed guy. I mean, he’s learned from one of the best in Andy Murray. And he’s certainly been around a lot of other coaches and his experiences internationally, in junior and at the NHL level are going to bode well for him for him in this head coaching position.
“The players will like him because this guy lives and breathes hockey. He’s one of those guys.”
One player in the Penguins organization has already played for Johnston, and that’s prospect Derrick Pouliot.
Pouliot was Johnston’s first-ever draft pick as general manager and head coach of the Portland Winterhawks. Johnston clearly thought highly of the young defenseman from Saskatchewan, as he chose the defenseman first overall in the 2009 Western Hockey League draft.
A few years and many wins and awards later, Pouliot had nothing but good things to say about the time he spent playing for Johnston.
“Mike was a very good coach. Very knowledgable,” Pouliot said. “And he really made my four years there very enjoyable and beneficial. He’s going to do well at the NHL level here in Pittsburgh.”
Under Johnston’s guidance, Pouliot capped off his terrific junior career by being named Defenseman of the Year for the entire Canadian Hockey League – which consists of the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Pouliot is often compared to Penguins defenseman Kris Letang because of his mobility, elite vision and puck-distribution skills, and is considered to be a potential future power-play quarterback.
Pouliot certainly has all of the offensive capabilities, and Johnston made sure he never stifled him in that regard – instead encouraging him to use his skill as much as possible. But what Johnston helped Pouliot with the most was improving his defensive game and teaching him how to be responsible in his own end.
“Personally, Mike taught me a lot of things,” Pouliot said. “A lot of stuff on the defensive side of the puck, and developing habits, and other things that I need to do to make it to the next level. He was a really good teacher. It really helped me a lot over the four years.”
As a team, Johnston’s Winterhawks have been a power in Canadian major junior hockey, reaching the WHL league final in each of the past four seasons. The Winterhawks’ 2013-14 roster featured 10 players already drafted by NHL teams, including Pouliot, taken eighth overall by the Penguins in 2012.
Pouliot said that Johnston knew exactly what buttons to push to get the most out of him and his teammates to keep their winning tradition alive.
“He’s not a yelling and screaming kind of coach, but he does expect a lot from his players,” Pouliot said. “He expects them to do their best and work their hardest every day to get better and be the best team they can be. So he respects the players but he also demands that respect back.
“He’s a smart man so he knows the right things to say to get the team motivated and ready for each and every game. With the preparation and stuff we put in during the week – it is all part of his plan coming into some of the games. So he can make that speech when he needs to or lay the hammer down and try to wake the team up. He uses a couple different things to get everyone going.”
Pouliot knows first-hand the kind of coach Johnston is at this point in his career. And the young defenseman feels he’s a perfect fit for the Penguins.
“Pittsburgh has somewhat of a similar makeup (to Portland) 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.”