When the Western Hockey League suspended Portland Winterhawks head coach-GM Mike Johnston for the remainder of the 2012-13 season for his involvement in player-benefit violations in late November, everyone in the organization was stunned to say the least.
“We were all blown away by it,” says Winterhawks interim-head coach Travis Green, who was the team’s assistant prior to the suspension. “Everyone was a little in disbelief. No one seen it coming and didn’t think anything like that would happen.”
The players were confused, having no precedent to know what would happen next.
“I didn’t see it coming, but I don’t think anyone did,” says Winterhawks leading goal-scorer Brendan Leipsic. “We didn’t know what would take place after. Everyone was just shocked and couldn’t really believe it happened.”
“It was a tough time for our team,” says star forward Nicolas Petan. “We didn’t think it was fair and the league didn’t explain everything to us in much detail. No one really knew exactly what was going on.”
They Winterhawks felt the league took away a man much more to them than just their bench boss.
“He’s more than just a coach, he’s the guy that believed in all of us when we were young when not everyone else did,” says Petan. “He brought us all here and was huge in helping us become the players we are today.”
But Portland didn’t let the setback crush their season. They rallied around their coach’s suspension with a goal to win an Ed Chynoweth Cup for him.
“We talked about it as a group and said this is the guy that believed in all of you, so let’s make him proud and win a championship for him,” says Green. “He has played a big role in developing these players and getting them to where they are today. The guys want to win one for him.”
“This season is for Mike,” adds Leipsic. “He’s done so much for all of us. We want to win one in honour of him.”
With seven games remaining on their regular-season schedule, there is not much more the Winterhawks could have done to make Johnston proud up until this point. The Oregon-based club sits first in the WHL standings with a 51-11-1-2 record for 105 points.
There have been no shortage of players stepping up in Portland’s dressing room, but Leipsic and Petan have stood out in particular. Leipsic, a Nashville Predators prospect, has almost doubled his 58-point total from last year, potting 44 goals and 111 points in 62 games. Petan, who turns 18 in late March, has exploded into a superstar in his second season in the league, notching 44 goals and 109 points in 65 games.
“It’s not just one or two things on why Brendan and Nic have been so successful, it’s a combination of their skill, hockey sense, work ethic, and determination,” says Green. “They never take a night off. They’re just great players in this league with bright futures.”
Having elite stars such as Leipsic, Petan, St. Louis Blues second-rounder Ty Rattie, Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot, and top 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones in his arsenal has helped ease Green into his interim head-coach role.
“It’s always easier to be a coach when you have a lot of talent on your team,” says Green, who spent 14 seasons in the NHL prior to his coaching career. “Usually when someone becomes a head coach, they have the offseason to prepare for the season, but I didn’t have that. It happened really fast. I have to give credit to Mike (Johnston) for helping prepare me for this. I really learned a lot from him over the years as his assistant.”
Although Johnston and Green do have their similarities behind the bench, the players have noticed a difference in their coaching styles.
“I think Travis (Green) really relates to the players because he played in the NHL before,” says Leipsic. “He’s a player’s coach. But their philosophies on the game are the same. We play the same system and go into the games the same way we did with Mike (Johnston).
Throwing their impeccable regular-season stats to the side, the Winterhawks know it is a long way to the top in the Dub having come up short in the finals the past two years.
“We know no matter how good we do in the season, it doesn’t mean much in the playoffs,” says Green. “But we can feed off our strong regular-season in the playoffs and just keep it going. Our goal here is to win. We lost to the (Edmonton) Oil Kings last year and the (Kootenay) Ice the year before. We know how it feels to come that close and not pull it off. We don’t want to be in that situation again.”
It seems Portland’s first test in the post-season will be against the seventh-place Seattle Thunderbirds or eighth-place Everett Silvertips. If they do, as expected, move on from there, the Winterhawks will have their hands full with high-end teams such as the Kelowna Rockets and Kamloops Blazers, not to mention the best of the Eastern Conference.
“It won’t be easy, but we know we got the right group of guys and we have extra motivation to win it for Mike," says Green.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen