When the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks’ owner, Bill Gallacher, wanted to revamp the Hawks’ hockey operations in 2008, he turned to Mike Johnston — a sought-after coach who knows there’s a lot more to hockey than what goes on after the puck drops.
With nearly 10 years of NHL experience, Johnston has an impressive track record for winning. In addition to helping the Vancouver Canucks capture the Northwest Division Championship in 2004 (the first division title for the franchise since the 1992-93 season), Johnston was an assistant coach for Canada at the 2007 Men’s World Hockey championships, where Canada — for the first time in 73 years — went undefeated (9−0) in winning the gold medal.
And since taking over as general manager and head coach of the Winterhawks, the former head coach for Team Canada has led the organization to the biggest turnaround in team history, capturing back-to-back Western Conference championships. Already during his tenure, the team has had 17 players drafted or signed by the NHL, including five first round selections.
With a clear bent for coaching — and winning — he is quick to point out, however, that it takes more than one leader and skillfully played hockey systems to create a successful hockey team.
“When you’re talking about a team, you’re talking about everybody that impacts the team,” said Johnston, who notes it’s no different when it comes to minor hockey. “You’re talking about the staff, the players, [and] the families are a big part of it. I think anybody that touches the group in any fashion … has an impact on the group.”
Much like he explains to the Hawks’ billet families, Johnston says parents play a big role in the team’s success, first by ensuring their players are getting enough rest and the right nutrition. Helping them to deal with psychological matters, such as disappointment about not playing well, is another important factor. However, in order for a team to be truly successful, Johnston says everybody connected to the team must be thinking about the team as a whole.
“Parents, obviously, are very, very focused on their own kids when they’re watching them play, but you have to step back and make sure you always have the best interest of the group in mind,” said Johnston.
In order for parents and others to be able to do this, Johnston says the coaching staff has to clearly outline the goals and objectives for the season, adding that rarely should the discussion focus on the number of wins and losses.
“It should be talking about performance … about off-ice … about the maturity of the group — all those types of things,” he said. However, “for me the most important thing is that the players improve and they enjoy the experience,” he said. “If they’re improving every day, then I believe that they will be successful. We rarely talk about the score. We talk about the process and what we’re doing. If the process is right in how we train, how we practise and how we play, we’re going to get the right results. If you focus on the score too much you’re not focusing on the right thing.”
In addition to on-ice skills, helping the players develop core values and life skills — such as honesty, strong work ethic and resiliency — are a key area of focus for the Winterhawks.
“That’s very important,” Johnston said. “In a game situation where they are playing on the road and the other team is playing really well and we are struggling a little bit, how can they rebound from that? How can they stop the momentum and then turn the tide in our favour? These are all life skills. They are skills you’re going to have to know in the business world, and you’re going to have to be able to deal with situations that arise.”
When it comes to creating a positive team dynamic that helps build a winning team, Johnston says the number one thing he looks for is that everybody is supportive of each other — particularly when the team faces challenges and adversity.
“Dysfunctional groups disintegrate at those times,” he said. “Groups that have very good team dynamics are able to support each other, they’re able to rally around each other, they’re able to dig themselves out of a hole quicker. You can see in the team’s body language when you’re watching your group — how they interact and how they support each other. [If] somebody makes a mistake out there on the ice, do the teammates tap him on the pads or do they turn away from him in sort of disgust, discouraged by what’s happened? I think body language is a very important thing in sports. We talk to our players a lot about it. You never want to show that you’re down. You never want to show you’re defeated. You never want to show that you’re upset at a teammate or situation. You want to look like you’re in full control and you’re winning the game at all times. Carrying yourself the right way can go a long way in becoming a good athlete.”
According to Johnston, organizing off-ice team building activities is one of the most effective ways to create a supportive team environment. Each year, he and his staff develop a team building plan that involves everything from simple games before practice to group outings such as horseback riding or museum tours.
“The big thing for me is that the players get to know each other. It’s like any other field: If you really get to know somebody or experience something unique with them then there’s a connect — there’s more of a bond. The one thing is that you’ll find out that, over the course of the year, you need everybody. You need the high energy guys that don’t often plan or prepare but [that] always have lots of energy, and the guys that are more prepared, thoughtful, conscientious — you need those guys too. Great organizations and great teams are built up of different personalities.”
When all the players feel like they are contributing to the team in a concrete way, the team as a whole will be stronger. Johnston says parents can play a big role in developing that confidence.
“There is never a day where any of the kids will come to the rink and say ‘I don’t want to play well today,’ you know, ‘I don’t care about the game, I don’t care about the result.’ They want to have a great game. They probably dream about it. They think about scoring a couple goals, having a successful game. As a goaltender — getting a successful shutout. Every player goes to the arena with the right intentions that they want to play well.”
When parents recognize that, he said, it’s okay to give the kids some advice and offer some tips after the game, but parents need to make sure it’s 70 per cent positive and that anything else is “sandwiched in between.” Overall, he said, parents need to pay attention to the good things that are happening on the ice, instead of being “so focused on mistakes.”
“If I was to make one point for parents, as I look back on our experience as a family in minor sports — hockey and volleyball and lacrosse and everything we did — it’s that a lot of our good friends all came from our kids’ sports teams. When you look back on your experiences and your interaction with your kids’ youth teams, I guarantee those will be some of the best years you’ve ever had and those will be some of your best friends. So, looking at that, make sure you really take advantage of that and really enjoy it.”