Hawks get 300th win for Johnston
Nice of the Winterhawk players to delay Mike Johnston's 300th career Western Hockey League victory until Sunday at Moda Center, so it could be celebrated in front of partisans on home ice.
Not that Johnston wouldn't have preferred to get it at Kamloops, British Columbia, on Friday or Saturday night instead of the finale of the three-games-in-three-days triathlon with the Blazers.
Portland lost the first two games; then, after an 11-hour bus ride, took care of business on Sunday, beating Kamloops 4-2 to get their coach to the milestone.
"We're all so proud of him," said 20-year-old defenseman Keoni Texeira, who scored the game-winning goal, giving the Hawks a 3-0 lead in the third period. "It's a huge accomplishment in the little time he has been here. We were all trying to push to get him that 300th win."
Johnston, who turns 61 in three weeks, holds a 300-157-12-16 record in his eight seasons at the Winterhawks helm. He has the best winning percentage (.646) among the seven head coaches in Portland's 42-year history. In terms of total wins, Johnston ranks second, ahead of both Mike Williamson (219-248-31-26 from 1999-2007) and Brent Peterson (198-137-20 from 1991-98).
But Johnston has a long way to go to catch Ken Hodge, who was 742-585-74 in his 23 seasons (1973-95) coaching the Hawks. Hodge was the WHL record-holder until — ironically — the Blazers' Don Hay surpassed him Saturday night in Kamloops.
"It's hard to imagine winning that many games," Johnston marveled. "I've known Don for a long time. And with Hodgie — what an accomplishment for both of them. You have to throw a few 50-win seasons in or you're not going to get to those numbers."
Hodge, who lives in Portland and serves as a special consultant for the Hawks, admires what Johnston is doing with his old team.
"Mike has done an excellent job very quickly here," Hodge said. "He understands the game well. He's a good teacher and communicator and a great recruiter."
Johnston got his 300th quickly despite taking over as general manager/ head coach of a franchise in tatters in 2008. In one year, he had things turned around to a winning record; after that were four straight Western Conference championships and a trip to the Memorial Cup. Johnston left in 2014 to take the head coaching position of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins. He was fired a year and a half later, only to return to the Hawks last season, re-energizing a franchise that had lost momentum under coach Jamie Kompon.
"It's great to get to 300," Johnston said after accepting congratulation from his players in a jubilant locker room Sunday night. "When you're in the middle of a season, you're just scratching and clawing. Every win is as exciting as the other win. When you're losing, you're beating your head trying figure out a way to get back on track."
After a 19-4 start, in which the Hawks were ranked No. 2 among all the clubs in North America major junior hockey, they've lost more than desired. Since then, Portland has gone 10-13-1-3. The Hawks are now 29-17-1-3 and in second place behind Everett in the U.S. Division, in which all five teams are within 10 points of one another.
The major problem for Portland has been injuries — lots of them. The club's two best players — forwards Kieffer Bellows and Cody Glass — have been out for two weeks.
"I expect Glass (hip) to be back maybe this week," Johnston said. "Bellows (hand), maybe in two weeks."
Glass, a No. 1 draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights, has 25 goals and 63 points in 42 games. Bellows, a No. 1 draft pick of the New York Islanders, has 22 goals and 47 points in 34 games.
"They're a goal a game," Johnston said. "If you lose games by a goal, that's the difference. Those two are a goal every game, for sure. With (linemate Skyler) McKenzie, a lot of times they were two goals a game."
Bellows, the son of long-time NHL winger Brian Bellows, was the star of the U.S. team that earned a bronze medal at the recent World Junior Championships in Buffalo. The junior Bellows led the tournament with nine goals in seven games, breaking the record for U.S. players of eight set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989.
In skating to its blistering start, Portland had only one player sustain a significant injury — center Ryan Hughes, who was out for three months with a broken leg.
Since then, "it's been one injury after another," Johnston said.
"We just can't stay healthy," he said. "Six weeks of it is kind of crazy. I've never seen it like that. We haven't had our (full) team together since early December.
"I told the players, 'The adversity you've faced through the middle portions of the year should help you in the playoffs.' It's a tight, tough division. These games are going to help us. Guys playing up in the lineup always helps come playoff time."
When healthy, this is a Hawks team capable of contending for the WHL title. Seven players are NHL draft picks, including four in the first round — Bellows, Glass and defensemen Henri Jokiharju and Dennis Cholowski, the latter obtained in a trade with Prince George three weeks ago.
"I really like this team," Johnston said. "We're talented. We have eight defensemen who can play. If we continue to get strong goaltending (from starter Cole Kehler and backup Shane Farkas), our forwards will be dangerous."
But they need Bellows and Glass, who make everyone else better.
"Our top end (at the forwards) is really good," Johnston said. "Below that, we have a good supporting cast, but not great."
And without Bellows and Glass, "our forward group is just not strong or experienced enough," he said.
But Bellows and Glass should be back soon. And the man stirring the drink has the full confidence of those around him.
"Mike's ability to teach is what sets him apart," said lead assistant coach Kyle Gustafson, who has been with the organization for 14 years and also served under Williamson and Kompon. "It's a great fit for our organization. He's much like a high school teacher or college professor. He has an uncanny ability to relate to these guys. He develops bonds. The players really care for and respect him.
"And Mike has a really exciting style of play. It's better for the players to develop under this style of play, but it's also fun to watch."
Texeira has played 375 games in his five seasons with the Hawks, a good portion of them for Johnston.
"He's a fantastic coach in teaching you the right plays and the system," the overage defenseman said. "He pushes your limits every single day. He pushes you to get to the next level. As a player, you appreciate that. We couldn't ask for a better coach in this league."