Johnston takes long way to NHL
Jets assistant coach jumped at opportunity to move to big club from Moose
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OTTAWA — The ink had barely dried on Rick Bowness’s contract as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets when a random resume crossed his desk.
Wasting little time to get your name out to the new bench boss might seem like a gutsy approach, especially for someone who had never spoken to Bowness before or really knew much about the veteran coach other than his decades-long run in the NHL.
Marty Johnston has never been one to back down from an opportunity, and after spending years as an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose, the Jets’ AHL affiliate, he felt ready to make the jump to the big club. This was his chance.
“I was motivated to continue to learn and grow and wanted to challenge myself at the next level if the opportunity came around,” Johnston told the Free Press in a phone interview from Ottawa, where the Jets are in town to play the Senators Saturday night. “It’s not often you get to change levels and stay in the same city and with the potential of having a new staff in place here, I wanted to make clear I felt prepared and ready and wanted an opportunity to interview.”
He added: “I’m grateful that we had that opportunity. But, yeah, I guess it was an aggressive approach.”
It also proved to be a successful one, as Bowness named Johnston an assistant coach, joining a staff that also includes associate coach Scott Arniel and fellow assistant Brad Lauer. It’s the first time any of the four had coached together, making what they’ve achieved this year all the more impressive; through 46 games, the Jets are fighting for top spot in the Western Conference, boasting a 29-16-1 record.
As for whether Bowness thought Johnston’s approach was over the top, quite the opposite. It showed the kind of confidence and determination he was looking for.
“I love that enthusiasm about him,” said Bowness. “I heard a lot of great things about him. He’s a very hard-working guy, lots of energy. He’s been a very important addition to our staff.”
While the other members of Bowness’ staff have easily visible roles — Arniel runs the defence and penalty kill; Lauer handles the forwards and power play — Johnston’s responsibilities are less obvious. The 44-year-old Gloucester, Ont. native — which is a suburb of Ottawa, making Saturday’s game against the Sens a special homecoming moment — has two main duties.
Johnston is in charge of pre-scouting the opposing team, particularly their five-on-five play, and spending one-on-one time with the forwards, combing through film to identify various ways they can improve their game.
On game nights, he’s the “eye in the sky,” watching the first two periods from a bird’s eye view, bringing the team whatever information he can during intermission. He’s then on the bench for the third period.
“Marty is a guy who you look at his route to get here, it’s not like it’s been a paved way. He’s had to work and establish himself at each level to get to the next one, and I’ve just really grown to appreciate Marty and what he does for our team,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “As much as they’re coaching you, you’ve got to believe in what they’re preaching, you got to buy into it. That’s a big part, is the trust factor, too. For a guy like Marty, it’s not like he’s coming in with 1,000 NHL games and two Stanley Cups. It’s something where he’s kind of got to prove himself to us as the players and then, in turn, we trust him. And we do.”
Like most coaches, Johnston’s career started on the ice. He wasn’t the biggest player at 5-8, 180 pounds, but he had a lot of skill and touch around the net, including one season during which he scored 44 goals and 58 assists for 102 points in 66 games with the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
He was also a proven winner, having helped the Claude Julien-led Olympiques win a Memorial Cup in 1997, when Johnston and Julien were both in their first season. Johnston would later play three seasons with Dalhousie University, where he would be named the AUS most valuable player in his final year, before moving onto a professional career that included 17 games in the AHL and 115 in the ECHL.
It was actually Julien, who has now coached 1,275 NHL regular season games, who first suggested Johnston, his captain in Hull for two seasons, consider a career as a coach.
“It was the exit meeting at the end of my 20-year-old year and I was hoping for him to give me a real strong vote of confidence that I had a pro career ahead of me,” said Johnston. “He was great with me, but he also asked if I ever thought of coaching and that maybe I’d make a good coach.”
Johnston would get his first shot with the Carleton University Ravens, hired on as an assistant coach for the 2007-08 season. He was promoted to head coach three years later and spent seven more seasons behind the bench, becoming the university’s all-time winningest coach with a record of 129-49-12.
He left to become an assistant coach with the Moose, where he’d spend the next five seasons before making the jump to the Jets. Johnston was highly respected during his time with the AHL club, helping develop the organization’s youngest players.
“He’s one of those guys, his work ethic is really hard. He’s always staying out as long as guys need to help us after practice. Give us rims, give us passes, and always trying to help us out,” said Jets forward Cole Perfetti, who spent parts of two seasons with Moose. “He’s fresh to the league too, so just like a young guy he’s working really hard and putting in the extra time and it’s great to have a coach like that.”
More than halfway through his first NHL season, Johnston is soaking up every moment. It can be early mornings and long nights, but he wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Johnston said although it can be a lot of work, it’s important he balances his work and family life. He credits his success to his wife, Roxanne, with whom he has a daughter, Abby, and son, Murphy. Then there’s the support of his parents, Joan and Al, as well as his brother, Kennedy, all of whom have helped shape the person he is today.
“I wouldn’t be here today without them,” said Johnston. “Family is the most important thing.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.