Mike Johnston gets locker-room call from WHL champion Winterhawks
Mike Johnston wasn't in Edmonton, as the Winterhawks wrapped up a spot in the Memorial Cup by beating the Oil Kings 5-1 Sunday afternoon to clinch the Western Hockey League championship.
Portland's suspended general manager/coach was there in spirit, though, and in the hearts of the players and coaches who brought Portland its first appearance in the Memorial Cup in 15 years.
Minutes after the on-ice presentation of the Ed Chynoweth Cup, back in the visitors locker room at Rexall Place, interim head coach Travis Green -- Johnston's right-hand man over the past five years -- gathered the players.
Then he phoned Johnston back in Portland.
"We spoke a few words, and he held his cell phone up, and they had a little cheer and the players were going wild in the background," Johnston said Sunday night. "You know how teenage guys are. They're great like that. It was really a special moment."
Twenty-four games into the season, WHL President Ron Robison shut down Johnston for the season as part of sanctions for player benefit violations. It was a shot to the gut of Johnston, who had worked with Green to lift a moribund franchise to a title contender in four years and was about to enjoy the fruits of his spoils.
Johnston's resentment at Robison has passed now. He said Sunday night he is "thrilled to death" at the Hawks' rise to the WHL crown.
"I'm just so proud of the players and Travis and (assistant coach) Kyle Gustafson and (scouting director) Matt Bardsley and the training staff," Johnston said. "It's a unique group. We knew that from the beginning of year that it was. So resilient.
"I've really enjoyed watching how our team has played and seeing the maturity of kids we brought in as 15- and 16-year-olds, guys like Taylor Peters, Tyler Wotherspoon and Troy Rutkowski and Ty Rattie. It would have been fun to clinch it in Portland, but watching on TV (Friday) night, the atmosphere in the building was incredible. We did Portland proud."
Barred from coaching at games or at practice sessions -- or even being present for either -- Johnston has watched every game's Internet feed either on the computer or TV. He speaks with Green regularly but has allowed him the autonomy of coaching the Hawks his way.
"I haven't interfered with how Travis coaches the team," Johnston said. "The good thing is, we were together for four years. I know how he operates, and he knows exactly what I'm thinking, but he trusted his instincts and did a phenomenal job. The same with Kyle, stepping up to the role as he did."
Johnston began Sunday with his normal workout at the gym. Then he went to Mother's Day brunch with wife Myrna and son Adam. After Sunday's Game 6 of the WHL finals, Johnston called his mother, Sheila Johnston, for special greetings.
Sheila Johnston still lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Johnston grew up. Portland's opening-game opponents at the Memorial Cup Saturday are the Halifax Mooseheads.
"Quite a coincidence," Mike Johnston said. "It's (the Mooseheads') first time in the Memorial Cup, and we'll be playing them in the opener."
Johnston plans to convene with his parents in Saskatoon this weekend and hopes he'll be able to watch the Winterhawks' games with them. In the Blades' arena, not on TV.
That hasn't yet been cleared by the WHL office.
"We'll approach that with the league in the next day or two and see their reaction," Johnston said.
If Robison has a conscience, he'll allow Johnston the opportunity to watch his team play. The Hawks' general manager/coach has more than served his penance.
After our phone conversation, Johnston was headed for Memorial Coliseum, where he was meeting with the team to have a late-night celebration with his guys in person after their plane flight home.
At noon on Tuesday at Pioneer Square, a public rally and reception will be held in honor of the Hawks. The Chynoweth Cup will be on display, coaches and players will make speeches, and fans will be able to pay tribute to the best team in the WHL.
Even without him at games, the Hawks didn't get there without Mike Johnston.