BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE.Winterhawks' assistant coach embraces first WHL challenge

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - First-year Portland Winterhawks assistant coach Danny Flynn (right) works the bench during a game with fellow assistant Kyle Gustafson (left) and head coach Mike Johnston.When you've been a hockey coach as long as Danny Flynn has, you've done a lot of teaching.

But the way Flynn sees it, that's a two-way street.

"Coaching for me is lifelong learning," Flynn says.

That thirst for growth, and for a different experience, is what brought Flynn to Portland this season to be an assistant coach for the Portland Winterhawks. It's also been a chance to coach alongside his friend, Mike Johnston.

Flynn was invited to Portland by Johnston when the Hawks' GM/coach/VP learned Flynn was looking for something new. As a head coach, Flynn guided the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title and Memorial Cup semifinals last season.

Now Flynn is gearing up for what he hopes is another long playoff season. The Winterhawks open the Western Hockey League playoffs with a best-of-7 series against the Spokane Chiefs. The first two games will be Saturday and Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

This will be different for Flynn, and not only because it's his first time coaching in the WHL. The path to a championship here is much more daunting — in part because the WHL playoff format pairs division rivals in the opening rounds. In the QMJHL, teams are seeded 1 to 16, with the top seed playing the 16th in the first round.

Another difference is philosophy. Unlike some junior franchises, the Winterhawks build for sustained success.

"The team I had last year in Saint John was built for last year," Flynn notes. "We had 12 (NHL) drafted players and had 14 19-year-olds. We had a veteran team that was the culmination of a three-year build, and we were able to go through the league and really steamroll our way through because we had such a veteran team."

The Winterhawks don't lack for high-end NHL draft picks, but this Portland team is relatively young, with only six 19-year-olds.

"The team is a lot younger here. The team is solid. If we play well, we can make some noise in the playoffs," Flynn says. "But there's enough players here that the next two or three years look awful bright."

As for his own future, Flynn says his focus is on this Winterhawks team. He will think about that after the season and "learned a long time ago that the future will take care of itself."

Other than differences in league structure, the 22-team WHL is similar to the 20-team Ontario Hockey League and the 18-team QMJHL, leagues where Flynn spent much of his career.

"The style of play has evolved to be pretty much the same in each league," Flynn says. "With the level of coaching across North America, the information coaches now share and from the national teams' programs, all three leagues are playing pretty much the same style that kind of models the NHL."

Kyle Gustafson, the Winterhawks' associate coach in his 13th season with the organization, says having another veteran coach has benefited the club and his own personal growth.

Flynn has suggested different practice drills and different concepts of team structure.

"It's a different perspective," Gustafson says. "Why don't you think about this? Or, this is something that's worked well for us in the past.

"He has a lot of experience with this age group, so he's very familiar with the league and with what these guys go through as a maturation process, too."

Flynn had stints as an assistant coach for the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabers. But most of his coaching has been at the junior or college level.

The Winterhawks have lived up to their reputation around junior hockey as a first-class program, Flynn says.

"It's a real mature, quality, experienced staff," he says. "The kids, I don't think they have any idea how much experience, including NHL experience, this staff has. It's certainly the most in the CHL."

Portland is unique in another way, according to Flynn.

"There's so many guys here who have been here a long time that there's a great camaraderie, a great spirit," he say. "You don't see that a lot in junior hockey."

Gustafson, 37, says he sometimes feels like a fly on the wall when Flynn and Johnston, both 60, reminisce about their hockey journey, which for both began in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

"We have a good balance as a staff," Gustafson says. "Danny has a lot of different ideas, and I try to bring a lot more energy to the group, being kind of a younger guy. We all have a say in everything that goes on."

Flynn agrees that the chemistry between him and Gustafson was good from the start of the season.

"Kyle (being younger) can bring a different perspective to the table than I can or than Mike can," Flynn says. "That's important. It gives the staff a mix and a balance. But I think we all understand, we all agree about what has to happen on the ice and off the ice for a team to be successful."

Flynn's areas of focus are the forwards and the penalty kill. He also is responsible for charting scoring chances after each game.

Gustafson focuses on the defensemen and the power play and is responsible for pregame scouting reports on opponents.

One area Flynn has emphasized with Winterhawks forwards is their defensive responsibilities. Only Everett, with star goalie Carter Hart, has allowed fewer goals in the WHL this season.

"I perhaps have a little more focus on defending without the puck. I'm really proud of the fact that at this point we're second in goals against, which for the type of game we play is an accomplishment," Flynn says. "Certainly a lot of credit has to go to the quality of our defensemen and the work of our goaltenders, but our focus on reacting on defense and our focus on understanding the two-way game is something I believe in and always push."

Flynn's oldest son, Brad, is in his second season as head coach of the Corpus Christie (Texas) Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League. His wife, Elaine, and youngest son, Andrew, are living in the family's home in Moncton, New Brunswick, where Andrew is attending Mount Allison University.

Elaine and Andrew have visited Portland, but from experience understand the time commitments that come with coaching major junior hockey.

It is a lifestyle Flynn has embraced and enjoyed for more than three decades. He has found success as a head coach and general manager, but is happy to be in a support role in Portland.

"Assistant coach is the best job in hockey if you can manage your ego, because you get to be part of everything," Flynn says. "And I like coaching because I enjoy the time with the kids. I've had the chance to work with the kids during practice, before and after, video, all those things.

"I've enjoyed the whole experience. It's been lots of fun. I'm hoping there's two long months more."

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