CALGARY – Mike Johnston is familiar with throwing together a bunch of hockey players and trying to win a world championship, but not with players this young.
The former NHL assistant coach was named Canada’s head coach for next month’s world under-18 hockey championships Wednesday by Hockey Canada.
The April 9-19 tournament will be held in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn. Canada opens defence of the world under-18 title won last year in Kazan, Russia, versus Germany on April 9.
Johnston, from Dartmouth, N.S., became coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winter Hawks this season after almost a decade as an assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.
He’s been Canada’s assistant coach at the men’s world championship (1996, 1997, 1998, 2007, 2008) and at the world junior championships (1994, 1995), winning four gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
Johnston will take under-18 players whose club teams didn’t make the playoffs or whose teams lose in the first round of playoffs. That’s a process identical to taking NHL players to the world championships.
“The first couple days you’re dealing with the mindset of the players, where they’ve had maybe a down season or a disappointing finish to the season and now you’ve got to pick them back up and get them excited,” Johnston said Wednesday from Portland.
“You’ve got to re-charge them and build up as the tournament goes along. This is their playoffs and that’s how you sell it. It’s a chance to represent Canada in a world championship. You have a chance to win a gold medal.”
Johnston was also assistant coach for Canada at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.
Steve Spott of the Kitchener Rangers and Eric Lavigne of the Val-d’Or Foreurs will be Johnston’s assistant coaches on the under-18 team.
Canada plays exhibition games April 5 in Blaine, Minn., against Finland and April 7 versus Slovakia in Minneapolis.
“This is a difficult tournament simply because Canada doesn’t have access to all their best players, whereas the other countries do,” Johnston said. “Canada is a little bit handicapped that way and that’s great.
“We don’t go in as the clear-cut favourite. We go in as a little bit of an underdog. We won it last year so it’s a chance where we can really start to establish ourselves at this tournament.”
Johnston, Spott, Lavigne and Hockey Canada head scout Al Murray, will select players for the under-18 team (born in 1991).
It will be the first time the world under-18 championships will be held in North America in its 11-year history, which is an advantage for Canada, Johnston said.
“Two years ago we took the guys to Russia and it’s a very demanding travel schedule,” Johnston said. “The transition for us will be much easier here.
“It will give us a couple extra days where we aren’t worried about fatigue and jet let and we can actually do some things with the players.”