Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Portland Winterhawks’ Mike Johnston applies football concepts to hockey to tire out opponentsIt is always good to read stories about someone turning a bane into a boon. For most of the U.S.-based major junior hockey teams, competing for attention with the lodestar of America's sporting passions, football, is a fact of life. It's reality that early-season attendance numbers are often held down by potential customers being distracted by the high school, college and pro game.

So it's intriguing to read how Portland Winterhawks coach-GM Mike Johnston, whose team has reached the WHL final for the second year in a row, has taken advantage of being in the same market with a big-time college football team. The Winterhawks, who are likely to have their fifth NHL first-round pick in three years when puck-moving defenceman par excellence Derrick Pouliot receives a sweater from a NHL GM in June, are known for an entertaining, offensive-oriented style. Of course, playing that way takes more than having a fistful of potential NHLers, although having first-rounders such as Sven Bärtschi and Joe Morrow makes it a little easier.

It's been written about before, but Johnston has modelled some of Portland's practice routine on the concepts used by Chip Kelly, head coach of the college football powerhouse Oregon Ducks. The Ducks are a darling of armchair quarterbacks far and wide for their high-tempo offence. Reducing the amount of time they take between plays has allowed them to beat teams with a relatively straightforward run-based offence. It turns out Johnston visited some of Kelly's practices in the fall with a notebook in hand.

From Kris Anderson:

"The reason I wanted to go down and see Chip and the Ducks practice is because they play a similar style to the way we play," Johnston said. "They like up-tempo. They like to play at a high, high pace. So what we took from that practice was a lot of our habits that we do now in practice."

The Hawks coach always created an intense atmosphere at practice, but after watching Kelly, he saw changes he could make.

"I wanted the pace to be high, but I saw a different level down there," Johnston said. "I saw how short they ran their drills. Maybe we were running our drills a little too long. They did a lot of their practice to music. We've tried that sometimes with our guys, just to give a change." (Portland Tribune)

Winterhawks centre Brendan Leipsic told the Tribune, "I talk to buddies that I have on other teams, and we do a lot more reps than some other teams. [Strength and conditioning coach Rich Campbell] and [Johnston] do a good job making sure we stay in shape."

Obviously, Johnston's method is getting attention due to the Winterhawks' success. But hockey coaches' techniques, paraphrasing from a recent Stephen Brunt column, sometimes do only span a gamut from A to B. Johnston certainly is not the only hockey person who has gleaned from the gridiron. The late, great E.J. McGuire of NHL Central Scouting used to attend the NFL combine to see if there was anything he could take from football to apply to the NHL's own combine for prospective draft choices.

The big takeaway might be whether Johnston's practices keep the players more engaged as the season drags along. The hockey season gets to be a grind at some point and players might have a harder time opting in when they're going through a drill for the umpteenth time that season. A lot of other coaches are probably experimenting with how to avoid it, but thanks to his trip over to Oregon, Johnston has found something that is working.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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