Wayne Gretzky. Martin Brodeur. Patrick Roy. Jonathan Toews. Chris Pronger. Jarome Iginla.
What does the group above have in common?
Besides the fact that all of the above either already are, or one day will be, enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, that group shares something else: each has been coached by Mike Johnston, who was hired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.
To be honest, we could have added another handful of Hall of Famers to the list, but that small sample gives you a good idea about Johnston’s pedigree.
Johnston has not only coached some of the best players to ever lace a pair of skates, but he’s won – and won often – with them.
When Johnston steps onto the ice at CONSOL Energy Center for the first day of training camp in mid-September, he’ll do so having already won two gold medals as an assistant coach of Canada’s World Junior Championship team (1994, ’95) and two more gold medals as an assistant/associate coach on Canada’s World Championship team (1997, 2007).
That doesn’t include two silver medals and a bronze medal with Canada at the World Championships, nor a stint as an assistant coach on Canada’s 1998 Olympic Team, the first year the Winter Games allowed NHLers to participate. It ended up being a squad that featured 10 players already in the Hall of Fame and four more who will join them.
Add in the fact that in his most recent stop as head coach of the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL), his teams have gone to four consecutive league championship series – winning the title in 2012-13 – and Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford seems to have picked the perfect man to direct Pittsburgh’s high-flying attack.
“Mike has great experience in many levels in hockey; international, special teams for Team Canada,” Rutherford said. “He’s coached in the National Hockey League as an associate coach for several years and he brings great experience to this team.
“The style of play and some of the things I was looking for in a head coach, he was a guy that was capable of making adjustments during games and that’s probably his strongest suit because he’s a guy that’s coached teams in tournaments, and in order to be successful in those tournaments, you always have to make adjustments. … I am very, very pleased that Mike wanted to come and take on this challenge.”
Speaking of challenges, each December in Canada, the World Junior tournament is treated as though it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. Coaches and players must perform under a tiny microscope where winning is expected, and demanded, from both the fans and media.
Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill played for those back-to-back World Junior gold-medal winning teams in 1994 and ’95, when Johnston served as an assistant coach. Botterrill said Johnston was instrumental in helping the Canadians meet their lofty expectations, which isn’t as easy as one would think, despite the fact their lineup is loaded every year.
“I thought Mike did an outstanding job of handling the pressure both years,” Botterill said. “He was extremely prepared and very articulate on where exactly the players had to be from a systematic standpoint. There was always good communication on both the staffs that he was on, and it was one of the main reasons why we came out on top in both situations. We came away with gold because of the preparation from the coaching staff.”
Because he has witnessed Johnston’s methods first-hand, Botterill is convinced the Penguins have found the perfect coach to blend the high-scoring exploits of stars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal with up-and-coming youngsters Olli Maatta, Beau Bennett and Brandon Sutter into a team that can advance deep into the playoffs.
“You look at his track record and his experiences, and he has it all,” Botterill said. “He has junior hockey, he’s got the National Hockey League, he has international hockey. He has always been a true student of the game. 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.”